Denby Fawcett: A Kaneohe Church Is Turning Its Golf Course Into A Community Asset

Opinion article badgeFirst Presbyterian Church of Honolulu has had a unique set-up. For a time, it was the only church in the world to own an 18-hole golf course – with golfers teeing up outside while congregants inside worshiped God in the clubhouse.

That may sound strange, but the church’s Koolau Golf Club in Kaneohe was working fine until September 2020 when the company handling the golf operations for the church said it was shutting down permanently.

The golf management company blamed the pandemic but there were other reasons: The private golf course hugging the Koolau cliffs has been a money loser ever since Minami Group USA opened it in 1992. It was too rainy (78 inches a year), too difficult to play with its steep hills and deep gullies and too distant from Honolulu.

To decide what to do next, the church hired architect-planner Kelly Miyamura, who is also a church member, to come up with feasible ways to transform the 246-acre golf course into a community resource to serve a wider constituency than just golfers.

“Typically a land owner approaches a piece of property with a development plan already in place. What we are doing is the opposite. By listening to community members and longtime residents of the area first, we are learning about the opportunities and constraints of the land, what worked well in the past, before completing the development plan, ”says Miyamura.

Church executive director Christopher Pan says, initially, Windward community members were worried that the church might be eager to maximize profits by building high-rises and other developments on the golf course.

The property is surrounded by three highways and abuts growing Kailua and Kaneohe residential neighborhoods.

First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at Koolau volunteers assist in girdling Albizia trees and clean up on their property.
First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at Koolau is hoping to return its golf course to a more natural state. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2022

But instead, the goal – still in the planning stage – is to replace the fairways, greens and sand bunkers with more environmentally friendly open spaces.

“We are not trying to work against the land, but to work with the land to restore it,” Miyamura says.

First Presbyterian is looking at possibilities that include sustainable farming and health and wellness options, including bike paths, hiking trails and camping grounds, as well as programs to promote renewable energy use and cultural and educational learning opportunities for people interested in green job employment.

“It’s unusual for a land owner of a property that’s already developed to transform it back into conservation land,” says Senior Pastor Dan Chun.

Chun sees a highly spiritual component in the church’s quest to return the property to a more natural state – land which for 30 years brought pleasure to only a selective few hitting golf balls on magnificent fairways at the base of the Koolau mountains.

“Owning this property is a gift to be used for something larger: to work to restore the land for the replenishment of people’s souls and to serve the larger community,” he says.

The cost would be a game-changer for most landowners but as a nonprofit, Chun says the church mainly hopes to break even.

“We are not like a hedge fund that has to make a 13% annual profit,” says church executive director Pan.

While the planned golf course transformation progresses, First Presbyterian continues its religious services in the 110,000-square-foot clubhouse with its marble-floored entrance and indoor waterfall – built originally for the pleasure of Japanese millionaire golf members.

And it continues earning money for its operating costs by renting out its Koolau Ballroom and Conference Center with its full commercial kitchen overseen by a chef capable of preparing hundreds of meals for meetings and parties.

First Presbyterian expects early next year to submit to the Department of Land and Natural Resources a master plan in its application for a new conservation district use permit. With the current CDU permit, the church can only use the land as a golf course.

“All our dreams are pending DLNR approval,” says pastor Chun.

Scott Schultz and First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu Koolau volunteers assist in girdling Albizia trees and clean up on their property.
Scott Schultz and First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu Koolau volunteers assist in girdling albizia trees and cleaning up their property. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2022

While it works on the application, the church has invited community members for a series of work days to begin clearing the property of thousands of invasive plants and trees choking the gullies around links and to replace them with the native species that once thrived at the foot of the Koolaus, including hala, koa and mamaki.

Jayme Grzebik says, “It’s important to get going. The invasive trees and weeds don’t stop growing while we wait for the completion of the paperwork for the new permit. “

On Saturday, a group of about 30 volunteers fanned out deep in one of the gullies of the front nine holes to girdle and peel off the bark of fast-spreading, invasive albizia trees to kill them.

“The albizia trees overshadow everything, nothing can grow underneath them,” said volunteer Lee Cranmer, a church member.

Grzebik has already completed an inventory of the trees on the property to give the church a better understanding of exactly what’s on the property.

She is a horticulturalist formerly affiliated with the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and the former manager of the UH’s Master Gardener program.

Fran Deninno and First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu Koolau volunteers assist in girdling Albizia trees and clean up on their property.
Volunteers strip outer layers of bark on invasive albizia trees on the golf course to make the trees die in a slow, controlled manner. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2022

Miyamura says interviews and oral histories of kupuna by students at Windward Community College have revealed that taro was once grown in the area; also stretching out on the land behind the golf course was a hala grove famous for the particularly sweet smell of its hinano, or flowers. Later, there was a dairy.

You are probably wondering how the church became the owner of a private golf course estimated to have cost its original Japanese investors $ 80 million.

Senior pastor Chun says it was nothing short of a miracle. Everything came together at once to make it happen.

The fast-growing First Presbyterian had pushed past the parking and space limits of its original property on Nehoa and Pensacola Streets and was looking for years for a new location to expand when it heard about the golf course. It already had saved $ 8 million, which it combined with $ 15 million from the sale of its church property in Makiki to Catholic Charities Hawaii.

The funds were used to buy Koolau Golf Course for $ 20.3 million, with cash left over to pay for remodeling sections of the golf clubhouse to make it suitable for expanding the 1,500-member congregation.

Now the phrase most often heard from the church is the weight of its responsibility.

“It is important for the church to show it can be a partner in caring for God’s creation. We have an enormous responsibility. We have to show we can do it right, ”says pastor Chun.

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