On October 13, the Supreme Court of Hawai`i announced it will review a lower court decision that an outdated, 25-year-old Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) provides enough information to approve a major new development project on O`ahu’s famous North Shore. The case pits local community members, environmentalists and surfers against the proposed expansion of the Turtle Bay Resort. Kuilima Resort Company, owner of the property, is seeking approval for five new hotels and 1000 luxury condos, which would permanently alter the North Shore’s rural landscape.
The Supreme Court will review a split 2-1 decision by the state Intermediate Court of Appeals that denied a request for an updated review of the proposed development’s environmental and community impacts. The request came from community group Keep the North Shore Country and Sierra Club, Hawai`i Chapter.
The appeals court majority held that no further review would ever be required unless the "project itself" changed. This ruling could be taken to absurd conclusions. For example, Turtle Bay’s 1985 EIS could remain valid forever, even if there are major hurricanes, drastic shoreline erosion or significant changes to the surrounding community.
As community and environmental groups have pointed out, the North Shore has already undergone significant changes since the EIS was issued.
"Much has changed in the last two decades, most notably the rapid growth in traffic congestion along the narrow, two-lane Kamehameha Highway, the only regional roadway on the North Shore," said Gil Riviere, President of Keep the North Shore Country. "The expansion plan is extremely unpopular due to concerns of over-development of the rural area, traffic gridlock, new environmental concerns such as endangered monk seals pupping on the resort property, and the likelihood of disturbing ancient Hawaiian burials."
Six community organizations represented by Earthjustice — Conservation Council of Hawai’i, Surfrider Foundation, Hawai’i’s Thousand Friends, Life of the Land, Maui Tomorrow Foundation, and KAHEA: The Hawai’i Environmental Alliance — filed a "friend of the court" brief in support of the plaintiffs’ position. Their involvement was necessitated by the broad negative ramifications of the lower court’s ruling, which could impact development projects throughout the islands.
"The purpose of an EIS is to ensure decision makers have the necessary information about the human and environmental impacts of a proposed project," said Robert D. Harris, Director of the Sierra Club, Hawai`i Chapter. "This lets the community be involved in the process and ensures smart decisions are made," he continued. "Plainly, we cannot rely upon obsolete information to approve a project that is clearly no longer appropriate for the community."
"This is really about applying a little common sense to development plans," said Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake. "Preventing further review, just because the project itself hasn’t changed, makes no sense. It is precisely because the project hasn’t changed, despite an entire generation of change on the North Shore, that we need an update on the true impacts of the original proposal."