Maui church wins
new hearing

A county agency will reconsider
a request to build a church
on rural land in Kula

A Maui church will return to square one in its 10-year effort to build a church on rural Kula land after the Maui County Council approved a new hearing on its special use permit application.

The Maui Planning Commission will reconsider its denial of Hale O Kaula's application in a mediation process aimed at settling a federal religious discrimination suit scheduled for trial in November.

The commission's rejection, based on neighbors' concerns about traffic, sparse water resources and fire hazard, led the church to file suit in 2001.

The case attracted legal representation by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that deals with constitutional issues, and the backing of the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a separate suit.

"We hope the county will do the right thing after all these years," said David Jenkins, pastor of the 60-member congregation.

Maui Councilman Riki Hokama said he voted for the resolution "with reservations" to let the proposed settlement move forward.

The Monday vote was taken after a closed-door Council briefing on the settlement proposal reached by church and county attorneys last month.

A contested-case hearing will be held next month, said Deputy Maui Corporation Counsel Madelyn D'Enbeau yesterday.

Special hearing officer Guy Haywood will consider church plans to build a sanctuary atop a 1,700-square-foot agricultural building on its 6-acre property.

Haywood, who was selected by the county and the church, will also hear from the neighbors in the agricultural subdivision. He will hear "additional evidence on fire, water, traffic and religious issues," D'Enbeau said.

His findings will be submitted to the Planning Commission, which is expected to act by its November meeting, said the county attorney. If the commission denies the application, the trial date is still on for mid-November.

Church and county attorneys agreed to the process in a settlement agreement attempt mandated by U.S. District Judge Samuel King.

"Judge King indicated that if the church can establish that it is substantially burdened by the decision, then the Planning Commission should look at what is the least restrictive means to satisfy government concerns about safety," said D'Enbeau.

That is the standard set by the federal Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act of 2000, which is the basis of the U.S. Justice Department suit.

The Hale O Kaula pastor said the plan for a Kula church was originally denied by the county in 1994. In the second attempt, Jenkins said, "we had a biased hearing officer. She said she would not like it in her neighborhood ... and neighbors should decide about a church in their area. We filed a motion asking the Planning Commission to disqualify her, but she ruled on it herself and the hearing went on the same day."

Jenkins said because of its objections to her actions, the church did not present a full case, such as challenging the intervening neighbors' claims, at the 2001 contested case hearing.

Three of the nine members of the current Planning Commission were on the commission when it upheld the earlier hearing officer's recommendation to deny the permit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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