Preserving treasures of Hawaii's North Shore

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Hotels are likely to be built on either side of the existing Turtle Bay Resort.
Hotels are likely to be built on either side of the existing Turtle Bay Resort.

Well-informed travelers headed to Oahu for the first time know they need to visit the island's North Shore, where the dramatic coastline and small-town vibe provide a wonderful contrast to the soaring high-rises and urban energy of Waikiki.

Last month, local government officials finalized a conservation deal to help preserve the stunning North Shore's natural beauty that attracts so many Oahu visitors, ratifying a $45 million agreement among the state of Hawaii, the city and county of Honolulu, the U.S. Army and the Turtle Bay Resort's ownership to safeguard nearly 630 acres from development in perpetuity.

"It was definitely the definition of a good deal," said Drew Stotesbury, Turtle Bay's CEO. "Everybody compromised. The state would certainly tell you they paid more than they thought they ever would for conservation value, and we would tell you we sold it for less than we thought it was worth."

With negotiations dating to 2010, according to Stotesbury, the deal allowed the state to purchase development rights for two large parcels on either side of the existing 443-room Turtle Bay, one fronted by Kawela Bay and the other by Kahuku Point. And while the bulk of the arrangement is based on a conservation easement, meaning Turtle Bay Resort retains ownership of the land but no longer has the right to build on it, about 60 acres fronting Kawela Bay are now owned outright by the state of Hawaii and the city and county of Honolulu.

Hawaii state Sen. Gil Riviere said that in January, when newly elected Gov. David Ige and his team became involved in the negotiations, "they went back and looked at it again and said, 'Well, the state would feel better if it actually owned some real estate.' So Kawela Bay was transferred and sold to the state, and a little additional space was sold to the city."

Of the agreement's total $45 million purchase price, $7.5 million came from the city and county of Honolulu, $2.5 million was provided by the Army in partnership with the Trust for Public Land, and the other $35 million came from the state, financed by bonds. Those will be paid off, in part, by money collected from Hawaii's hotel room tax, in increments of between $1.5 million and $2 million annually.

A surfer looks out over the North Shore coastline.
A surfer looks out over the North Shore coastline.

"Visitors come here for the beauty," said Riviere, who helped found the community group Keep the North Shore Country, a longtime opponent of expansion plans at Turtle Bay. "They don't come here to ride around in elevators in big, tall buildings. They come here for the majesty we're lucky enough to live in, [and] if tourism is the economic driver, then we have to preserve these things for our visitors."

Like Stotesbury, Riviere called the finalized conservation agreement a good deal, one he said resolves decades of community debate about substantial expansion plans at the 850-acre oceanfront property.

"In the '80s, it was determined they were going to build 3,500 more hotel rooms," Riviere said. "That, as it turns out, could not be supported by the hotel market nor by the infrastructure or the location. The highways were inadequate, and the community has been united and vehemently opposed to the full-scale expansion. So this agreement helps right a decision that in retrospect was not a good one."

Keep the North Shore Country was a major player in a 2006 lawsuit against Turtle Bay Resort's ownership group at the time, Oaktree Capital Management, contesting the group's plans to use a 20-year-old environmental study in their effort to restart the 3,500-room hotel expansion plan.

"In 2006, they were trying to say that their environmental study completed in 1985 was fully adequate," Riviere said. "That was of course unanimously thrown out by the Supreme Court, so we were vindicated in the end."

Stotesbury's Replay Resorts took over management at Turtle Bay in 2010, representing a collection of financial institutions and investment banks that assumed ownership in February of the same year after an out-of-court foreclosure settlement with Oaktree. It wasn't long, according to Stotesbury, before the idea of financial compensation in exchange for development rights was discussed.

"It took a while, obviously, for that bait to get bitten," he said. "When it did, it created the process that's just now finished."

Turtle Bay is home to 12 miles of oceanfront hiking trails.
Turtle Bay is home to 12 miles of oceanfront hiking trails.

Still, the conservation deal between the state and the resort's ownership won't halt Turtle Bay development entirely. Two oceanfront expansions are planned on either side of the existing resort footprint, adding a total of 625 rooms. No start date is scheduled for that construction, and Stotesbury noted that the architectural planning won't even finish until the end of this year.

"It really keeps all of the future hotel development within the existing core of the resort and doesn't sprawl it out along the coastline, which is what a number of people were concerned about during our earlier planning process," Stotesbury said.

Meanwhile, more than 4 miles of Oahu's coastline has been preserved, including shoreline vital to a number of Hawaii's most endangered species.

"If you go look at Kawela Bay and you see the beauty of that place, it's easy to be passionate about conserving it," Riviere said.

"But over the past 10 years, the value of the Kahuku Point side of the property has actually become more apparent to me," he said. "Kahuku Point is where you've got the [endangered] monk seals being born, and you've got sea turtles nesting and endangered birds nesting out there. You've also got the endangered yellow-faced bee. There's all kinds of stuff out there that needs attention and protection."

According to Irene Sprecher, a cooperative resource management forester for Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, the now-preserved open space at Turtle Bay is also home to about 100 acres of vital wetlands.

"They've got a wonderful collection of our really rare Hawaiian wetland birds there, including Hawaiian stilts, the moorhen, the Hawaiian coot, all of them federally listed as endangered," she said. "And they need those water features for foraging and breeding habitat."

Conserving the coastline and key inland ecosystems, on an island now home to 1 million residents, certainly seems to fall in line with Turtle Bay Resort's effort to attract "active, affluent travelers." 

"They're people that can afford to come to Hawaii and are different from those that are perhaps going to places like Mexico," Stotesbury said. "What we're all about is providing as many active experiences and really authentic experiences as we can."

The resort property is home to 12 miles of hiking trails, now tracing a great deal of land preserved in the conservation deal, which are terrific for jogging and mountain biking and offer access to several scenic beaches.

But those trails aren't available only to resort guests. The agreement means the preserved open space will be accessible to all comers, and while Turtle Bay currently features 40 parking stalls dedicated to the general public, Stotesbury said more parking areas are in the works.

For Sprecher, that means Oahu's North Shore will be better equipped to accommodate a growing segment in today's travel market.

"More and more people are interested in ecotourism opportunities," she said. "They want to be able to experience the natural environment vs. just spending time in their hotel room and going to the beach some during the day. They want to be able to experience what Hawaii is really like."

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