Small Business Matters: Permitting reform update

  • State of Hawaii Department of Accounting and General Services Building Construction Inspector Brian Jenkins stands in the expansive loby of Keahuolu Courthouse under construction on Tuesday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Neal Tanaka, acting deputy Building Division chief, left, and Andrew Donovan, acting Building Division chief, work on a computer at the Building Department at the West Hawaii Civic Center. The County Council approved a three-year, $320,000 software license that the administration said will fix the problem holding up the county’s $2.3 million building permit system as well as improve geographic information systems at the Civil Defense Agency, Mass Transit Agency and other county departments. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file)

It’s a widely acknowledged fact that the current state of our local building permit process inhibits economic development. It’s an inefficient, incoherent, costly, and woefully fragmented process.

I think I’ve just about exhausted my repertoire of admonishing adjectives there, but so has the permitting process, quite literally, exhausted the business community. There’s not much to be gained in pointing fingers now, as we’re way past that level of frustration and need to get moving on improving the situation to have any hope of making it through the next couple of decades with anything looking like a well-functioning and responsive local economy. We are not that now — an environment where getting any physical modification done to an existing or new business is achingly slow, the very opposite of being the nimble economy we need to be to compete locally and on the world stage as a major tourist destination.

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The Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce (currently in the midst of a membership drive, by the way) recognizes the need for permitting reform as crucial to economic growth and has designated it, along with the issues of homelessness and astronomy, as its marquee issues of concern this year.

The chamber has mobilized its membership and outreach to try to make an impact in those areas, with new task forces targeted, respectively, on permitting and homelessness, and with support for and cooperation with other community players for the construction of TMT. It cannot be denied that each of these issues has far-reaching consequences for the future of the Big Island.

The Permitting Task Force’s objectives are to become a recognized conduit to the county for community input so end-users are heard, to facilitate the sharing of a county “road map” to the permitting process so businesses at least know where to turn and what’s next on their development path, to encourage third-party review of permits to unclog the permit logjam, and to seek clarity on building code interpretation.

Taken individually, these do not seem to be terribly revolutionary objectives, or really all that innovative. Rather, they are common sense and broad issues needing to be tackled first, the “low hanging fruit” that can provide a foundation, and a process, for moving forward.

The task force has a laundry list of other concerns and suggestions we would also like to work on with the county, all provided directly from the business community, but we’ve got to start somewhere in our dialogue, and these were good points on which to open our discussion.

The background to all this is that the county has long been aware of the problems with the current permitting process and has actively sought solutions. One of their major initiatives was the purchase of a new IT system, EnerGov, intended to provide transparency and efficiency to a process that is clearly neither of those things currently. That is commendable and should provide some relief, but the implementation of that system has been pushed back from spring to summer and now to the end of this year or the beginning of next.

Interested readers of West Hawaii Today may have followed the track of the county’s progress on that in the pages of this paper. Neither the county nor the business community, however, view that new system as the silver bullet that will solve all our permitting problems, hence the need for ongoing discussion and improvements.

The Permitting Task Force has made what seem to be encouraging inroads with the county. We have met with county administration, which responded to our concerns and suggestions in providing us with a seat at the county technical group meeting monthly to guide EnerGov implementation, agreeing to our format for opening up a more general discussion for ongoing community input into the improvement process, and brainstorming about additional steps on which we might cooperate. We appreciate the county hearing us and welcome their acknowledgment of the problem and their efforts to do something about it.

We need to be clear though that this is a multifaceted problem area and a long-haul project, and these are first steps. Permitting involves not only the County Public Works Department but also other county departments: Fire, Environmental Management and Planning. On the state level, it also involves the Departments of Health, and Land and Natural Resources.

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We can’t impact all the barriers getting in the way of economic development and, given the complexity of the issues, our efforts in making an impact may be slow, but we really have no choice if we are committed to an economic future for Hawaii Island. If you are interested in joining your voice on this issue to those of the rest of the business community, think about joining the Kona-Kohala Chamber and its Permitting Task Force.

Dennis Boyd is the director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center and chair of the KKCC Permitting Task Force. Hawaii SBDC Network is funded in part through the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

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