Clouds part for Hokulia
Court papers reveal a ray of hope for the suit-hobbled project
KAILUA-KONA » Circuit Judge Ronald Ibarra is "inclined" to void his order that halted work on the 1,550-acre Kona residential project Hokulia in 2003, according to court documents.
Ibarra would issue a new ruling on the legality of Hokulia as part of a settlement of the lawsuit brought against developer 1250 Oceanside Partners by Protect Keopuka Ohana and four individuals, according to documents filed Friday in Ibarra's court in Kona and in the state Supreme Court.
Besides changing his ruling, Ibarra would permanently dismiss the plaintiffs' claims that Hokulia is an urban project being illegally built on agricultural land, documents say. He would also lift his ban on construction.
The documents do not indicate what the plaintiffs would get from a settlement. Previous, unsuccessful settlement proposals have involved Oceanside paying as much as $43 million in community benefits in exchange for plaintiffs not standing in the way of the project.
Oceanside has stated that it had invested $350 million in the project at the time Ibarra stopped it, and estimates have put the project's final value at $1 billion.
Critics have said Ibarra's ruling caused great uncertainty about what developers can do with agricultural land, because Oceanside had already obtained seemingly valid county permits for the project.
If county permits are not reliable, there is nothing developers can rely on, they said.
Ibarra's willingness to assist in a settlement is seen in a document he signed Thursday. The document is an order regarding his "inclination to grant" a motion "to partially vacate" his previous ruling.
The part he would not vacate would be an appeal pending in the Supreme Court of the matter that originally led to the lawsuit, questions relating to ocean pollution caused by storm water runoff from the project in 2000.
The document says Ibarra signed the document "without deciding" the matter. The purpose is to inform the state Supreme Court, where an overall appeal is pending, that the judge wants the case back to take another look at it, several documents say.
A key factor in the plaintiffs' willingness to negotiate is a change in attitude toward the project in the Legislature.
Last year, the Legislature was not sympathetic to bills that would have created a legal avenue for Oceanside to finish the project.
Protect Keopuka Ohana posted a statement on its Web site last year saying, "Mahalo to the Legislature for maintaining its integrity and especially to Sen. Russell Kokubun, who held the line on Hokulia buyout legislation."
This year, Kokubun is sponsoring Senate Bill 3097 to change the standards for residential use of agricultural land.
Kokubun told the Star-Bulletin that last year's bill was backward-looking only. His bill this year also deals with agricultural lands in the future, he said.
The plaintiffs have also dropped a set of attorneys. Previously, they were divided into a group of four individuals represented by attorney Robert Kim and the Ohana represented by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.
A court document says the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. is no longer in the case, and Kim now represents all plaintiffs.
Neither Kim nor Alan Murakami of the legal corporation would comment on the reason for the change.