In the latest chapter for a controversial house that towers over other homes in Nāpili, Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin said her investigation shows the developer shouldn’t have gotten a key exemption that allowed construction to bypass public input.
The unfinished, eight-bedroom home at 5385 Lower Honoapiʻilani Road, initially designed with rooftop and floor-level pools, came under fire last year when it climbed toward 45 feet tall.
Residents questioned how the county signed off on the plans without public input. The county’s Planning and Public Works departments, not the council, had jurisdiction over the approvals and permits.
On Tuesday, Paltin, whose residency seat covers West Maui, pointed to an email where the developer told the county Planning Department that the house would be used as a short-term vacation rental.
That’s one reason why the structure shouldn’t have received a Special Management Area exemption, she said during the council Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency committee meeting.
“The plot seems to thicken here,” committee Chairman Mike Molina said.
Meanwhile, community members who oppose the development are showing no sign of backing down.
“I don’t have to know all the rules or whatever to know that it’s just not right,” longtime Lahaina resident Cheryl Hotta testified Tuesday. “If he gets away with this, there are a lot of other developers that are going to follow suit and just keep destroying our natural environment.”
Mark Deakos, a West Maui resident for 25 years, said the home is “quite the monstrosity,” adding that he hopes it doesn’t set a precedent for future houses.
Nāpili resident Junya Nakoa, who was tapped as a council resource, said that officials are shifting blame in a situation that was wrong from the start.
“You guys give one SMA exception and they screwed up,” he said. “So someone (should) get lickins or the buggah get fired or permits withdrawn, pull that buggah, I don’t know what kind of language you want to put it in, but it’s wrong.”
Community members have pushed for stop-work orders, repealing permits, criminal investigations and more. Some even threatened the county and the council with legal action.
However, owner and developer Greg Brown has maintained that his home complies with county rules.
Due to outdated county zoning code, buildings in the Nāpili district were allowed to be two stories tall — but no height was specified. Brown’s structure triggered fast legislation last year that now prevents future area buildings from being more than 30 feet in height.
Additionally, the district allowed for short-term rentals and other hotel uses without permits that are required in other areas.
Despite repeated questioning, the Planning Department also has said it followed proper guidelines.
Plans for the home showed that it was less than 7,500 square feet, which was the basis for the SMA exemption. Also, Planning Director Michele McLean has said that Brown told the department the structure would be used as a single-family residence.
The project in 2019 gained a Special Management Area permit exemption, which does not involve a public notice or a public hearing like a major SMA would require.
Paltin on Tuesday asked McLean for an email showing the home would be used as a single-family residence.
“The staff planner who had made those inquiries could not find that email,” McLean responded. “And in fact found an email to the contrary.”
“Nonetheless we wrote to the applicant in March of 2021, informing him that our approvals were based on the structure being used as a second home or for long-term residency and our issuance of the exemption was based on it being used for long-term occupancy or second home — and that short-term rentals will not be allowed,” she added. “And he has not, the applicant, the owner, has not appealed the decision — so that decision stands.”
In 2018 emails with county planner Jim Buika, Brown and Tom Schnell of PBR Hawaii, Buika asks the two if the structure is a “house, home, apartment or short-term rental,” county documents show.
“You state it is home/single-family residence but the design does not reflect this,” Buika wrote Aug. 10, 2018.
Brown on Sept. 19, 2018, responded that it is not a hotel; “it is a residential home that I have designed for my family that I can legally vacation rent on hotel property. I had brought the plans in and met with Anne to confirm all of this before I submitted it.”
“I am a thirty year resident of Hawaii with five children and thus the reason for the large home along with a better legal rental potential,” he added.
Now, Maui County Council is considering whether to pursue an outside investigation that would sift through what happened and provide recommendations on where to go from here.
Molina on Tuesday deferred the item, saying it will be resumed early next month.
“There is a lot more questions to be answered and upon the revelation of member Paltin’s investigation, certainly I guess is worthy of a conversation potentially having outside eyes look at this whole matter,” Molina said. “The chair wants to bring closure to this issue, the Nāpili community has certainly expressed their concerns with this matter.”