Potential conflict for new city director over Kunia project

By Catherine Cruz
Published On: Apr 17 2013 05:37:00 PM HST

The Honolulu City Council approved the appointment of George Atta as the director of Planning and Permitting, but we've learned that Atta was also a point person hired by the church to  help shepard the project through the regulatory process.

HONOLULU -

The Honolulu City Council approved George Atta as the new director of the department of Permitting and Planning Wednesday.

But as recently as two months ago, George Atta's name was on a preliminary draft environmental review for the New Hope Leeward Church project  planned for Kunia farmland.

Atta was a principal of the company Group 70 International hired by the church.

He told KITV because of the conflict, he'll stay out of any decisions involving approvals.

“It will be left to my deputy, Art Challacombe to make the decision," said George Atta.

The church is currently revising its application to build a worship center and Christian school on agriculture land.

"I will not be playing any kind of role involving New Hope.  The only thing I will be doing is to make sure the rules relating to permitting and processing in the agriculture district and fair and level to everybody," said Atta.

Some worry the New Hope Promised Land project will set a precedent because it will paving over prime farm land. The church is trying to raise $28 million to buy 203 acres in Kunia.

The head of the state's Agribusiness Development Corporation said he initially fielded calls from planners questioning what the church knows about agriculture.

"That first meeting was brutal," said Jimmy Nakatani who once served as the director for the state agriculture department.

But under a plan to partner with New Hope he sees a good opportunity -- a tradeoff -- to save agriculture land from what could be a future as a golf course.

The church is looking to change the zoning on 48 acres, but maintains it will use only 14.7 acres for the footprint of its compound.

"It's kind of unusual, but for my selfish purposes, 150 acres of prime agriculture land is not a bad deal," said Nakatani.

Nakatani says the church has ideas to put prison inmates to work farming the land.

It would be a way to provide job skills to help their transition back into the community.

It is a new vision of looking at farmland and church programs that is sure to get further scrutiny.

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