Larry Ellison’s Hawaii housing project may have some residents whiffing ‘a strong odor’ – SF Gate

Lanai’s first affordable housing project in decades comes from an unlikely source: billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns 98% of the Hawaiian island. The first homes are scheduled to be completed later this year. 

But some residents have voiced concern about the proximity of the housing project to a county wastewater treatment plant and its possible adverse effects on public health. They’re also disappointed the units are for rent and not for sale, and they’re worried people from off island will scoop up the rentals and increase the overall population of Lanai. 

Last November, Hawaii’s Land Use Commission gave the Hokuao housing project on Lanai the green light. Proposed by Pulama Lanai, the island management company owned by tech billionaire Larry Ellison, the housing project would be Ellison’s first since purchasing the land in 2012. 

It also marked a major milestone for the island, which hasn’t seen an affordable housing project like this since the early 1990s. Hokuao features 150 two-bedroom single family homes for rent on lot sizes starting at 8,000 square feet. Seventy-six of the homes will be designated as affordable housing in perpetuity, while the other 74 homes will be rented at the market rate. All homes come fully furnished and have solar roof panels with backup batteries. The project also includes a small park and community center.

Hokuao will feature 150 two-bedroom, single-family homes.

Hokuao will feature 150 two-bedroom, single-family homes.

Pulama Lanai

The project is largely welcomed by Lanai residents who have been dealing with the housing shortage common across Hawaii. The island’s low inventory has driven up prices, and residents have had to decide between living in overcrowded multigenerational homes or moving away. 

“When I first moved here, I was OK with living with my significant other and his family. As time went on, more family members joined the household,” testified Alice Granito, who moved to Lanai in 2003. “Although it is a disappointment that this project would not be offering homes for sale, it is great to know that units will be available for rent. This will ease stress to families living in multi-generational and multi-family homes. I personally look forward to having the option to move into a single-family home on my own.”

On a small island of about 3,000 residents, one school, one hospital and no traffic lights, the additional housing will also aid in recruiting workers: employees for Pulama Lanai or other similar entities, and essential workers such as teachers, nurses and police officers.

“Hokuao is just one part of Pulama Lanai’s overall vision of creating a sustainable and vibrant community,” Keiki-Pua Dancil, senior vice president of government affairs and strategic planning at Pulama Lanai, told SFGATE in an email. “Over the past decade, working with residents, Pulama Lanai was able to bring the first hospice and pharmacy to Lanai, restored the community pool and supported youth sports programs, and created a dual credit program with the University of Hawaii to enhance higher learning opportunities for Lanai students.”

A rendering of Hokuao's 150 single family homes, which will bring 76 affordable homes to the Lanai community.

A rendering of Hokuao’s 150 single family homes, which will bring 76 affordable homes to the Lanai community.

Pulama Lanai

Most of Hokuao’s lands were former pineapple fields, abandoned since 1992, when pineapple production ceased. The parcel was chosen for its proximity to Lanai City and the ability of its residents to easily walk to town. But flanking the project’s southwestern border is also the county wastewater treatment plant.

“On days when there are no trade winds, many residents report a strong odor wafting out of the facility and into where Hokuao is planned to be built,” wrote Gabe Johnson in a letter addressed to the Maui County Department of Housing and Human Concerns. Johnson is the Maui County Council member for Lanai and chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee. “In some cases, that odor is enough to make one’s eyes water.”

Fairfax Reilly, another resident of Lanai City, wrote, “I have been a resident for 42 years. The odor is sufficient to bring tears and a runny nose.”

The majority of wastewater from Lanai City and Koele is pumped to the county wastewater facility, designed to process up to 500,000 gallons per day.

A study on the potential air quality impacts was done by a third party for Pulama Lanai and included a mid-morning site visit to the wastewater treatment facility on a day when no odor was present and trade winds were blowing at 10 to 15 miles per hour. 

The Hawaii Department of Health’s standard for hydrogen sulfide is less than 0.025 parts per million over a one hour average, but the site visit found no measurable amounts of hydrogen sulfide. The report concluded that it’s “likely that state and federal ambient air quality standards are currently being met in the project area,” but recommended a 300- to 600-foot buffer between the project and the wastewater facility. Thus, Pulama Lanai has included a 600-foot buffer in its plans.

The study also recognizes, though, that adherence to the standard does not mean there will never be an odor.

The map shows the project site of Hokuao in relation to the county wastewater treatment facility.

The map shows the project site of Hokuao in relation to the county wastewater treatment facility.

County of Maui/Google Maps

“Wastewater treatment plants generally are not considered significant sources of air pollution, but they can result in the release of small amounts of airborne odorous compounds,” the study said. “The types and amounts of compounds in the air are generally not considered hazardous to human health, but when they occur at sufficiently high concentrations at offsite locations, they can be detected by smell and potentially constitute a nuisance for nearby residents and businesses.”

Residents, however, are concerned about days when there are no trade winds or winds blowing from the other direction.

“Clearly, when the Kona winds [from the southwest] prevail, the waste water treatment plant will become a significant – and no doubt detrimental – component of the project’s environment,” wrote Lanai resident Robin Kaye in his comments to Pulama Lanai.

Despite some of the issues around Hokuao, the need for affordable housing on Lanai is strong. A proposed Maui County affordable housing project has stalled because of high infrastructure installation costs on land outside Lanai City, but the completion of Hokuao would bring infrastructure closer to it — and help the county complete its affordable homes project sooner.