Ask any developer, homeowner, or business owner who has had any contact with the permitting process on Hawaii Island for their thoughts on that process and I guarantee you’ll get an earful. Like the experience of our neighbors on Oahu, where a study last year judged the permitting process as the lengthiest of any metropolitan area in the U.S. by a huge margin, Hawaii Island residents face a frustrating, long trek in bringing any building or renovation project to fruition. It’s the kind of process that works against economic development and erects the kinds of hurdles that persuade potential investors to give up and try their luck elsewhere.
It’s easy to paint the administrators of the system with the same broad negative brush we use to paint the process, but I don’t think that would be a correct depiction. Not only is the public unhappy with the process but so are the people who administer it and they’re trying to improve it. Nobody is happy with permitting on Hawaii Island; everybody wants to change it.
That became crystal clear at a Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority meeting last week as key administrators responsible for county permitting explained how they are attempting to fix a system that works well for no one. Merrick Nishimoto, deputy director of Public Works; Neal Tanaka, Building Division Acting deputy director; Sheila Cadaoas, EnerGov project director; and county supervising inspectors and reviewers came together with a group of interested parties assembled by the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce to discuss the county’s plans to reform the system and answer community concerns.
The problems are many, but hopefully, a key to permitting reform is the implementation of a new cloud-based tracking system called EnerGov, used by municipalities across the nation, to which the county is currently converting 46 of its permits. While “the new system is only one facet to permitting reform,” according to Nishimoto, “it is a critical part, that will really help with transparency and tracking.” With the new system, plan submission is digital for many permits, plans can be reviewed concurrently by different reviewers, workflow is automated, the system integrates with County GIS (Geographic Information System) and Tax Records, and plan review comments are visible to all, to hopefully avoid multiple conflicting plan revision requests, as can happen now. The system is projected to go live at the end of the second quarter of this year and all projects currently in the system are being transitioned to it.
Now a technological fix promising to make the permitting world a better place is part of what got us into this mess in the first place from a misguided technology purchase by the last administration that did not deliver as promised. So, the county has already made or is proposing some other changes, like moving the intake process from the Planning Department to the Building Division under Public Works, one (instead of multiple) permits per project, building code amendments, streamlined procedures, and affordable housing code amendments. Suggested by the audience for consideration are third party (ie, non-county) plan review, digital signatures, and increased staffing. (The county is already well aware of this last item: there are only two full-time plan reviewers for the entire island of Hawaii. Supplementing them are other specialty reviewers and inspectors filling in on a part-time basis, but really? Two? For the entire island?!).
Current permitting problems are huge, and the anticipated reforms don’t solve everything, but it’s a start. “We need to take one bite of this elephant at a time,” says Nishimoto. The end game for all this he states “is to give people the ability to go online from the start of the permitting process and empower them to be as aware as possible of what’s going on with their property.”
Part of the transparency and responsiveness the county and the community is after depends on user experience, dialogue based on that, and government responsiveness to the issues uncovered. This can only happen if communication conduits are kept open. Nishimoto says he “would like to continue to have these open dialogue and outreaches to the community like the one this week. And I do say dialogue, not presentation, with the true intent being a two-way street so we can be there to listen, not just to talk.”
Hawaii County has a long way to go to achieve a transparent and user-friendly process for permitting that will facilitate the economic development it needs to make this a sustainable economy. It sounds like the people who administer the permitting process on the island have bought into the need to get us on that route. The community is watching, and heaven knows we have opinions. Let’s keep talking about them and encourage the County to keep on listening.
Dennis Boyd is director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center.
The Hawaii SBDC Network is funded in part through Cooperative Agreement No # SBAHQ-13-B-0048/0001 with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.