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How the Epic Turtle Bay Deal Saved Local Farms on the North Shore

A $6 million deal protects North Shore’s farmland.


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Photo: Sean Davey 

 

In January of 2008, Gov. Linda Lingle proposed buying the troubled Turtle Bay Resort and, more importantly, its 600 acres of undeveloped land. Built in 1976 by Del Webb, owner of the Sahara and the Mint casinos, the hotel was meant to open the door to Island gambling. Instead, it became a poker chip in financial games until mortgage holder Credit Suisse sued operator Kuilima Resort Co. and owner Oaktree Capital Management for $283 million, triggering foreclosure. 

 

Turtle Bay was so desirable because of a 1985 zoning rule allowing up to five new hotels. Oaktree hoped to build timeshares instead, but the traffic impact to an already intermittently gridlocked North Shore, plus the loss of farmland and beachfront, would’ve resulted in urbanization. 

 

Shaky state finances ensured the defeat of Lingle’s notion, but one idea took root. “I think I mentioned an easement for Turtle Bay to Gov. Lingle in 2007,” says Trust for Public Land executive director Lea Hong, who went on to orchestrate an April 2014 deal announced by Gov. Neil Abercrombie: an agricultural easement mauka of the resort and preservation of key shoreline. That fell apart after his November defeat. Two years later, however, the Turtle Bay saga has concluded on a high note.

 

For $6 million, new owner Replay Resorts will retain title, but for ag use only. “These mauka lands will always be used to feed people,” says Drew Stotesbury, CEO of Turtle Bay Resort. “We share a common view with the people of the North Shore that there is overwhelming importance in how responsible development, including strategic land conservation, can benefit future generations.”

 

Twelve farms currently working 468 mauka acres will supply hotel restaurants and farm-to-table events and a farmers market. Another 60 acres, including Kawela Bay, will be transferred to the state and city, who paid $1.5 million each.  

 

Besides willing owners, what made the deal work this time was the U.S. Army. “Basically, this is land next to where we do exercises,” explained Col. Richard Fromm, Commander, U.S. Army Garrison-Hawai‘i, which put up $3 million. Unlike people, vegetables don’t care about training exercises or helicopter and plane flyovers. 

 

“We’ve done seven of these deals in Hawai‘i, going back to 2006,” says Fromm, including ones for Waimea Valley, the Galbraith Estate and the Honouliuli Preserve (part of the new National Monument). “Frankly, we bring a big checkbook to the table.” 

 

The TPL’s Hong hopes Turtle Bay’s success with an easement will encourage others “to consider this tool—it can provide the landowner with some financial return and secure ag land for the long-term … eliminating land speculation.”

 

READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE 

 

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Honolulu Magazine January 2018
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