Legislature mulls handing off SHPD responsibilities to counties

  • The Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant is seen from a distance in late January. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

  • Passenger vehicles line up at the terminus of Daniel K. Inouye Highway to make a left turn onto Mamalahoa Highway, also known as Highway 190, to head toward Kailua-Kona on Dec. 17, 2019. A project to extend Daniel K. Inouye Highway to Queen Kaahumanu Highway is held up by State Historic Preservation Division delays in archaeological plan reviews. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

Delays in getting archaeological plan reviews from the State Historic Preservation Division have added years to the construction of Hawaii County projects, but county planning officials are skeptical a bill currently making its way through the Legislature is the answer.

Senate Bill 2076 would allow the state to delegate to the counties, or subcontract out to third parties, historic preservation project reviews currently under SHPD’s responsibility. Sponsored by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, an Oahu Democrat, and co-sponsored by Big Island Democratic Sens. Lorraine Inouye and Dru Kanuha, among others, the bill on Monday unanimously passed two Senate committees as amended and now proceeds to the Judiciary Committee, its final stop before the full Senate.

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Recent Big Island projects tangled in SHPD paperwork include upgrades to the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant, the extension of Daniel K. Inouye Highway to Queen Kaahumanu Highway and the public shoreline access component required of the 1,079-acre luxury Kaupulehu project.

The shoreline access was delayed five years before SHPD approval arrived in January, 2019. The Daniel K. Inouye Highway to Queen Kaahumanu Highway road extension remains up in the air, after DLNR reported in December that “discussions are ongoing” more than 32 months after the draft environmental impact statement was released.

The Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant R1 recycled water upgrade was supposed to be finished by the end of 2020, however, the county anticipates it won’t be able to start construction until 2021 due to delays in getting the project’s environmental impact statement finalized because of a backup at SHPD, which is tasked with compliance review.

SB 2076 is supported by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the agency that oversees SHPD.

“The Department believes that the provisions of Senate Bill 2076 offer the potential to expedite Section 6E-42, HRS, permits reviews while ensuring that significant historic properties receive consideration consistent with existing practice,” Chairwoman Suzanne Case said in testimony.

Maui County Council Chairwoman Alice Lee supported the bill as well.

“Many affordable-housing projects are delayed because of the State Historic Preservation Division’s inability to efficiently and effectively provide necessary reviews to ensure compliance with state historic preservation law,” she said.

Hawaii County officials haven’t submitted testimony because they’re unsure about the bill, said Andy Levin, the administration’s contracted lobbyist, after conferring with Planning Director Michael Yee. Levin said the county may or may not weigh in at the bill’s next committee.

Levin said the bill doesn’t include money for the county to hire the necessary archaeologists, even if qualified people could be found. One of the reasons SHPD has such a backlog is because of the inability to find qualified people to fill its own vacancies, he said.

“Just passing the bill is not going to solve the problem if there aren’t qualified people to do the work,” Levin said.

Other concerns were brought up by the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology. All of the records that are required to make the reviews are housed at SHPD on Oahu and a project to digitize them and make them available online continues to be delayed. In addition, said Angus Raff-Tierney, chairman of the association’s Legislative Committee in testimony, there would likely be conflicts of interest in using outside firms.

“Having third parties reviewing documents would likely become competing firms reviewing each other’s work. This would create the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Raff-Tierney said. “Keeping the review process entirely with government employees, be they SHPD or county, would keep the process independent.”

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The Office of Hawaiian Affairs weighed in with comments in unsigned testimony, saying it appreciated safeguards and protections built into the bill. Still, OHA suggested, perhaps it would be better to create a dedicated position within SHPD to handle the work.

“As SHPD has demonstrated, there is a clear need for qualifying standards, informational resources, and established consultation and assessment processes in order to consistently and adequately protect iwi kupuna, cultural sites, and other historic properties from development impacts as envisioned under HRS Chapter 6E’s historic preservation review framework,” the testimony stated. “OHA therefore appreciates the prerequisite conditions that this bill would require counties to meet, in order to receive delegated historic preservation review authority from SHPD.”

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