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Woodland Center may open without traffic improvements

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor

Woodland Center in Pahoa appears to be moving toward opening regardless of whether traffic safety improvements have been completed.

The County Council Planning Committee voted 7-2 Tuesday to grant a time extension to the developer of the center, which includes a gas station/convenience store, Long’s Drug Store, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King.

Regardless of how the county eventually votes on the bill, improvements demanded by the community are coming, said Jiro Sumada, state Department of Transportation deputy director.

Outside the meeting, Sumada said the DOT’s top Big Island priority is that stretch of road. He said the state and the developer are working closely to expedite improvements, including fast-tracking permits and working nights and weekends.

While Long’s is targeting a mid-November opening date, Sumada said he hopes to see the road improvements completed as soon after or as close to that date as possible.

The bill now goes before the full County Council and must pass two more hearings. A call for a public hearing in Pahoa was shot down by the same seven who voted to approve the time extension for developer Paul Ogasawara.

Hamakua Councilman Dominic Yagong and South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford were the dissenting votes.

Yagong said a public hearing would be an opportunity for the developer to hear community concerns and could color how residents and customers view the developer and the center.

Ka‘u Councilman Guy Enriques voted against a public hearing.

“Public hearings are not the best way to get answers,” he said. “Have the guts to make the decision.”

In general, Enriques said, public hearings “put the community at stress” and are expensive, time consuming, divisive and a burden.

North Kona Councilman Kelly Greenwell agreed, saying the county should not jeopardize the $400,000 “gift” from the developer, who has pledged to pay for the improvements.

Ford favored a public hearing as part of the council’s mandate to protect public health, safety and welfare – as well as avoid exposing the county to any liability.

More than two dozen residents also testified. While most said they do not oppose the center, many said they have serious concerns about traffic safety and traffic flow.

The $11 million shopping center is expected to create more than 100 jobs and be a boost rural Pahoa’s economy.

However, many regular travelers of Highway 130, or the Keaau-Pahoa Road, say the road already is dangerous and needs to be addressed before certificates of occupancy are issued.

The gas station/convenience store already has its certificate and Long’s is aiming for a Nov. 15 opening.

The state DOT requires the entrance to the shopping center be improved, but did not stipulate when those improvements must be complete.

Several described it as an emergency situation and officials would be negligent if they did not demand improvements, specifically right-turn-in, right-turn-out access.

Connecting Kahakai Boulevard and Highway 130 also would help, they said. Currently, Kahakai dead-ends yards from Highway 130.

Opening the drug store and two restaurants, all of which will have drive-thru windows, with one way in and out is not acceptable and likely would result in traffic collisions. Traffic flow also would be complicated by delivery trucks and containers.

Council members said they understood the community concern over safety, but also that it is in the best interest of the developer and the tenants to offer a safe shopping center.

As one woman testified from Hilo, “Dead people don’t buy anything.”

Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd said the original zoning expired about a year ago, although the developers are in compliance with necessary permits and requirements.

Although the matter is only now before the council, Leithead-Todd said the request for extension was filed in the first quarter of 2009.

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