Official charged with enforcing building codes didn’t get permits for residence

  • Plans Examining Manager Neil Erickson, left, and Public Works Director David Yamamoto address the County Council on Tuesday in Hilo. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — The county official charged with ensuring building permit laws are followed didn’t get building, plumbing or electrical permits for a solar water and photovoltaic system on his own property until 23 years after the fact.

Plans Examining Manager Neil Erickson, whose job description states he “supervises the enforcement of building, sign and energy codes,” and “plans, directs and coordinates countywide activities relating to building plans examining, building permit issuance, and building inspection,” blamed contractor problems for not obtaining the required permits for the Pepeekeo residence he had built in 1995.

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Erickson, an architect who’s worked for the county Building Division for almost eight years, said Tuesday he had to pay engineering fees and fines after the department received a complaint about his lack of permits.

“I was notified someone complained,” Erickson said. “I told them to treat me just like anyone else.”

Erickson’s building and electrical permits were approved after final inspections Jan. 18 and his plumbing permit was approved after final inspection Jan. 24, according to records obtained by West Hawaii Today.

Public Works Director David Yamamoto, the former Building Division chief until his appointment to head the department in January, referred questions to whether Erickson was sanctioned or otherwise disciplined to Neal Tanaka, acting division chief.

Tanaka said he couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation, while declining to verify there was one.

Erickson said it’s standard procedure to open an investigation when a complaint is filed.

It’s not the first time Erickson and the Building Division have come under scrutiny over permitting issues.

In 2016, Rob Tucker, a Puna prefab structure builder, filed ethics complaints for what he saw as preferential treatment for some permit applicants while his permit applications languished in the system.

“This person gets waved right through, and other people get 44 hurdles to jump over,” Tucker characterized the permit process.

The county, in its defense, says that many building permit applications come before the department in an incomplete condition.

During the 2016-17 fiscal year, only half of the 1,860 permits applied for passed during their first review, Tanaka told the council in January. 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.

The Ethics Board subsequently dismissed both complaints based on a lack of an alleged violation.

The County Council Public Works and Mass Transit Committee on Tuesday grilled Erickson and his boss Yamamoto about an unrelated item. Council members were concerned that a sign variance for a Kailua-Kona Holiday Inn had been applied for five years ago and has still not been finalized.

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, chairwoman of the committee, rewrote the resolution seeking the sign variance and presented it to her colleagues after pointing out numerous mistakes, including the zoning designation, on the original resolution presented by the department.

“We hope to get good work product from them which is factually accurate,” Lee Loy said of her stinging indictment of the department. “This was intended to be a teaching moment.”

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Other council members saw problems as well, and several said they want to focus on fixing the department, especially the Building Division, in order to help improve the island’s economy.

“This system is broken,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz. “There is something wrong with the process.”

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