New Public Works director confirmed: Administration vows to reduce building permit problems

  • Eric Irizy, left, and Neil Johnson of Johnson Construction work on a new house on Aka Ula St. in North Kona in 2015. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)

  • A new home is pictured under construction in Kona in 2015. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)

  • Public Works Director David Yamamoto

HILO — Despite perennial complaints about the cumbersome process of getting building permits, the head of that county division was elevated Wednesday to director of the Department of Public Works.

The County Council unanimously confirmed former Building Division Chief David Yamamoto as Public Works director, the third since Mayor Harry Kim took office in 2016. He replaces Allan Simeon, who’s stepping down from the $132,577 annual position to spend more time with his family.

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Yamamoto’s confirmation came after pointed questions from several council members on constituent complaints about how long it takes to get a building permit.

“I have a network of your harshest critics,” said Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy. “There’s a concern of your lack of innovative thinking, lack of vision, lack of communication and lack of rapport with others.”

Yamamoto acknowledged the system needs improvements, but he defended his communication skills.

“People want to move ahead with their plans, but this permit process is somewhat stifling or confusing,” Yamamoto said. “We try to help them before they come with their applications.”

The administration is addressing delays in getting permits through a number of initiatives, Building Division staff assured the council during an afternoon update on how to streamline the system.

The county in 2015 budgeted 22 new positions to handle permit applications because of the delays.

Current plans are to create a “one permit” system where building, plumbing and electrical permit applications will be handled together. As of Jan. 1, the administration has moved building permit applications back to the Building Division, instead of the recent practice of having them process first in the Planning Department.

During the 2016-17 fiscal year, only half of the 1,860 permits applied for passed during their first review, said Neal Tanaka, acting deputy chief of the Building Division. An additional 20 percent passed after the second review, 13 percent passed after the third review and the remainder took from four to seven reviews to pass.

Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz called those figures “staggering,” saying it seemed a waste of employees’ time to deal time and again with incomplete permit applications.

Tanaka said the county is creating a checklist of required paperwork and is embarking on a public outreach effort, making presentations to contractors and business groups to help them prepare their application.

The administration is also asking the County Council to approve changes to the building and administrative codes to allow a nonrefundable plan review fee that would be credited to the final permit fee in order to reduce frivolous permit submittals and an additional resubmittal fee after the third submittal to encourage more complete applications.

The county is installing a $2.3 million EnerGov planning and permitting system to replace an earlier computer system purchased in 2012 that proved so problematic last year that all building permit activity was paused for more than a week.

EnerGov is scheduled to go online in late spring.

The Building Division is also working on a pre-approval process for prefabricated buildings for affordable housing projects. Using an off-the-shelf prefabricated product would greatly reduce the need for plan reviews.

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“This is what we’ve been looking for for the past several years,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards. “This is exciting.”

Yamamoto, a registered professional engineer, has held the position of building chief since 2012. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Yamamoto joined the county in 1995 as a civil engineer, and prior to that, he worked at the state Department of Health from 1992.