By Cynthia Matzke
Late on Monday night, September 11, 2000 at the Community Center in Kihei, the building of a new $20 million Hawaiian-style theme park, and the fates of a 29.2 acre watershed and four captive Atlantic bottlenose dolphins were apparently decided by a room full of developers, planners, biologists, and some concerned community members.
Opposition to the Maui Nui theme park came from every angle, as residents expressed concerns that will have great impact on the island’s future, including traffic increases, freshwater demands, and the environmental impacts created by a project of this scope. However it was the park’s plan to create a captive dolphin “show” that drew most of the fire.
The Dolphin Institute (TDI) is looking to keep it’s four research dolphins: Akeakamai, Hiapo, Elele, and Phoenix captive here on Maui. Interestingly, as the main attractions in the Maui Nui park, the only things Hawaiian about these dolphins are three of their names.
Born wild and captured as juveniles from the Gulf of Mexico, all four are Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins. The first pair was taken off the coast of Mississippi 22 years ago and sent to biologist Dr. Lou Herman’s awaiting tanks on O`ahu. Seven years later, he obtained two more dolphins from the same area. Together the four have spent the last 15 years in captivity as research animals, where eight foot dolphins have lived in tanks just six feet deep. In his presentation the community, Dr. Herman boasts to have created “The Most Educated Dolphins in the World.” “He means the most Exploited dolphins in the World,” one audience member blurted from the back row.
The Approval Process
This Kihei community meeting was considered by the Planning Commission to be the “final hurdle” of community comment before the board’s decision to grant approval. Complaints about the meeting and the way it was conducted have been received, and justify a separate article entirely. The first hours of the meeting were spent hearing the entire proposal read, almost verbatim. Restless crowds waited hours for the floor to open, through long discussions of parking lot logistics and presentations by those most vested in the project. The highly controversial Dolphin Institute brought an entourage of pro-captivity speakers from O`ahu, “stacking the deck” as one resident testified, and urged the Planning Commission to consider actual Maui resident opinions, rather than those imported for the meeting.
Since community members who were not pre-signed to speak had to wait five hours for the chance to give a three minute statement at the podium, many voices went unheard. For many present, frustration soured to outrage at the way the meeting was conducted. The meeting was finally called to recess just before midnight. Upon reconvening the next day in Wailuku, the board voted in the theme park unanimously, effectively closing the community comment period. As of now, the project has all the clearance required, and is set to begin construction in mid-2001 with anticipated completion in late 2002.
The proposed Maui Nui Theme park is sponsored by the “for profit” arm of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and will cover a 29.2-acre parcel of land considered the Gateway to Kihei. The undeveloped watershed site is bounded by Pi`ilani Highway on the east, Uwapo Road on the south, South Kihei Road on the West, and Mokulele Highway on the north.
Originally proposed as the “Rainforest Village Theme Park” in 1998, developers strived to market and package more than another high-end shopping mall. During the early review process, community members had to point out to developers that Kihei was dry lowland with very little natural rainfall, more desert than rain forest. Undaunted, developers officially changed the name from “Rainforest Village” to “Maui Nui Park.”
The proposal includes special attractions such as a ‘lagoon’ boat ride, a 500-seat indoor luau garden amphitheater, and a wedding chapel with waterfall for an added commercial venue. It will provide ‘Extreme Cuisine,’ and “hi-tech educational attractions” including exhibits on Volcanology, Super Computers, Biology and animal cloning studies. The high-tech “Tsunami” display hits an ironic note, as studies verify the entire park is actually situated in a recognized tsunami and flood zone. A “tropical rainforest aviary” will feature non-indigenous birds and plants, collected from jungles all over the world. Not far from the wedding chapel’s bell tower, is the entrance of the ticket booth to their star attraction: The Dolphin Institute, featuring live dolphin “educational” shows performed daily in a massive outdoor public arena. This is the vision of the Maui Nui Theme park, sold as “a family education entertainment park which focuses on the history of Hawai`i.” The new park is to feature all things deemed marketably Hawaiian. To many island residents as well as visitors that honor Maui for its wild and untamed beauty, this park is not just exploitative, it sacrilegious.
“We did not want to create just another shopping complex. We are looking to create a venue where people will come to Maui to experience the uniqueness of this development,” Architect and project planner Lloyd Sueda of Sueda & Associates, Inc. from Honolulu stated in a May 8th response letter to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). In their own report, “Maui Nui” bills itself as a “first-class theme park,” to provide “stimulating, entertaining and educational experience about Maui’s varied cultural heritage, and for unrelated, subordinate commercial uses.”
In a letter dated March 15, 2000, OHA commented “this project seems incompatible with the type of tourist atmosphere that Maui and especially Kihei have tried to build. Maui is known for its casual but sophisticated tourist industry. This project does not appear to be consistent with the Maui County’s previous planning direction.”
The proposal was also reviewed by Aquatic Biologist Skippy Hau, from the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, who disputed the earlier project’s “no significant” impact claim on nearshore aquatic resources. His concerns included the long-term cumulative impacts of nearshore developments, the effects of the 300 – 400 feet deep injection well that would serve the dolphin facility, the accumulation of unfavorable algae species indicating reef health, and the noted negative effects on water-quality observed from projects of similar scope, already taking their tolls on the shoreline habitat.
In his letter of June 20, 2000 Mr. Hau also expressed concern and requested clarification on many dolphin related issues, including replenishment stocks, the possibility of park expansion, and cited the need for a facility to hold or maintain local stranded marine mammals. He commented, “Being the first marine mammals display facility on Maui, there should be some clarification and clear separation of non-profit research activities from ‘for profit’ public display, [as] the public will pay an admission charge to enter the main Park attraction.”
Dolphin Institute President Dr. Louis Herman responded that there will be an isolation tank, separated from the main dolphin habitat, however due to a particular viral disease, marine mammal facilities are generally not accepting stranded dolphins. Institute expansion through utilizing an adjacent five acre parcel also owned by the Weinberg Foundation is possible “though not planned,” and the facility plans to get replacement dolphins from other captive facilities as needed.
The project report research revealed: “an area of 6,144 acres located upstream of Waiakoa Stream bridge at Pi`ilani Highway contributes to offsite runoff. The offsite runoff flows in Waiakoa Stream under Piilani Highway, through the proposed project site and to the ocean.” Several Maui residents who spoke at the meeting recognized the value of this watershed area for delicate ecology. Positioned in the windy lowlands directly downhill from Haleakala, the area is not just known for flooding, it is naturally designed for it.
It was pointed out that red dust from construction and airborne ash from the cane fires would blow over the dolphin pens, and heavy rains could inevitably send all that debris running downhill right into the dolphin pools. Putting artificial pools with live animals in a natural, low-lying watershed area, one man posed “After the cane fires and first heavy rain, what are you going to do when all four dolphins go belly-up?” As proposed, the dolphin pools will be located directly adjacent to the stream, positioned the minimum requirement of just 45-ft from the bustling Pi`ilani Highway. The dolphins, though less than 100 yards from the ocean, will likely not see, taste or smell it; they will be surrounded on three sides by heavily used roadways, in arguably the island’s worst traffic intersections.