The open spaces, lush greenery, and blue waters of the northernmost point of Oahu’s North Shore masks the cultural, environmental, and legal controversy that has surrounded the lone resort complex that has existed there for nearly 40 years.
Built and opened in 1972 (as the Kuilima Resort & Country Club), the present day Turtle Bay Resort currently occupies a nearly 900-acre parcel of prime and picturesque oceanfront land in Kahuku. The resort features two golf courses, tennis courts, swimming pools, and over a thousand hotel rooms, luxury suites, private bungalows, and condominiums combined. Oh and yes, there are a couple of pretty decent surf spots right out front as well.
May 26, 2010
by Dean Luke
Several companies that have owned the resort in succession have made independent overtures with the City & County of Honolulu to expand the resort since the 1960’s. In October of 1985, the City accepted and approved a required pre-construction Environmental Impact Study (EIS) submitted by then-owners Kuilima Resort Co.
Ownership of the Turtle Bay Resort changed hands when Kuilima Resort Co.’s interest in the expansion project waned over time and the property was eventually sold to Oaktree Capital Management, a corporate investment management company, in 1999.
Six years later, in 2005, Oaktree announced that they would resuscitate the expansion project. In addition, they would team up with Kuilima Resort Co to share development costs and proceed with construction behind the 1985 EIS, considered by many as archaic and obsolete. The original expansion called for a total of 1,500 rooms spread between four hotels, and 2,000 condos. The 2005 plan included 2,500 rooms between five hotels, two of which were to be located in the unspoiled crescent of neighboring Kawela Bay, as well as 1,000 condos. The resulting increase in traffic density on two lane Kamehameha Highway was also a hot-button issue.
Immediately, the community alarm sounded across the North Shore, and grassroots conservation groups that didn’t already exist began to germinate.
They put a bright light to the aged EIS, challenging its validity, Oaktree’s ulterior motives, and highlighted the adverse effects such a project would incur on the area. The Defend Oahu Coalition was the first community group to organize and publicly oppose the plan in January 2006. In May of 2006, Keep the North Shore Country, along with the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, filed a civil lawsuit against Kuilima Resort Co and the Honolulu City & County in hopes of getting the 1985 EIS invalidated and forcing the developer to produce a more contemporary Supplemental EIS (SEIS).
On April 8th, 2010, they got what they’d hoped for, when the Hawaii Supreme Court overturned the previous lower court decisions and handed down a landmark ruling requiring a new EIS be performed before any ground could be broken on the project. Opponents were ecstatic with the decision.
“We’re very happy the Court agreed with us and ordered the Supplemental EIS. Their strong, unanimous opinion vindicates what we’ve said all along; that this is the classic case of when an SEIS is necessary,” said KNSC President Gil Riviere.
“This was a four-year battle of country against town, to complete victory, pursued by an ohana (family) of surfers, environmental activists and lawyers,” added Coast Law Group attorney Rory Wicks, who argued the case on behalf the plaintiffs.
Kuilima’s attorney did not respond to a Surfline request for comment in this article, but she was quoted in local media recently expressing her and her clients’ disappointment in the ruling despite the strong case they’d presented. During all these goings-on, ownership of the Turtle Bay Resort changed hands yet again, with a consortium of lenders called Turtle Bay Resort LLC assuming the reigns from Oaktree Capital via foreclosure settlement.
While conservationists and North Shore residents are celebrating the court ruling, this is a fight that is far from being over. Attorneys for the developer will continue to aggressively appeal the decision and have already filed a motion for reconsideration with the high court, citing what they consider as several overlooked provisions when they reversed the original EIS acceptance. KNSC responded to the motion, and the ball lies with the defense as of this writing.
Neither side looks like they’re prepared to concede anytime soon, but this latest development signifies that North Shore residents’ concerns have been heard and their testimony heeded by the state’s highest legal authority. Although the project has not been disbanded, they view the ruling as a major victory nonetheless.
“The SEIS will be a public process regarding the likely impacts of the project. Hopefully, the owner consortium will finally begin to engage and listen to this community,” said Riviere.
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