Permitting: Insights from across the island chain

  • A new home under construction in the Kona Vistas Subdivision is pictured last spring off Lako Street. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file)

For those of you who aren’t aware, permitting for construction of new developments or renovation of existing structures is a huge problem on Hawaii Island. It has been recognized by the business community as a major barrier to economic development and working toward improvement of the permitting process is one of the three top priority areas for the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce. For those of you who are aware and have been following this issue, you’ve now got something new to think about.

Some background first.

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The chamber’s Permitting Task Force is all about trying to reform the county permitting process by facilitating community input and recommendations for increased efficiency of the system. It was born of a history of frustration the business and development communities experienced in trying to actually get something done in Hawaii County and being pretty frequently frustrated by the current system’s inefficiencies and inadequacies. The task force has recently been working with the county to user-test EnerGov, the new cloud-based computing platform the county intends as a replacement for the current platform and which promises transparency, electronic submission of plans and all sorts of new efficiencies.

EnerGov is a story in and of itself, having gone through repeated cycles of being scheduled for deployment and then postponed over the past several years. There’s no need to go into the details of that here, except to say that there’s a good chance we won’t be seeing EnerGov in Hawaii County until at least the end of this year. Well and good actually, as there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to implement a new platform, which is after all only a tool, when there are new administrative rules in the works. It only makes sense to figure out how you want something to work before customizing a mechanism to further that along.

Pivoting to those administrative rules, these are in draft form and will be submitted this spring for County Council review. The task force has backed off from its focus on EnerGov and is working with the council to compile a list of suggested reform recommendations that range over the permitting spectrum, from code changes to process changes to staffing changes. Again, well and good; democracy and civil involvement in action. Kudos all around.

Recently though, a hand grenade has been lobbed into this public-private collaboration by an audit report from the City and County of Honolulu on their permitting problems, which are many, and which eerily mirror the problems we experience in Hawaii County. These include excessive delays in obtaining permits, lack of outreach and user confusion about how to navigate the system, excessive rounds of reviews requiring permit applicants to re-engineer what they just re-engineered, etc. Suffice it to say that lots of things detailed in the Honolulu report in the way of community concerns are identical to the concerns we share locally.

In and of itself, that’s not terribly unusual: Community coming up against bureaucracy in trying to achieve progress on real-world projects but coming from two very different mindsets and agendas. It’s not an unfamiliar story. What is unusual, revealing, and frankly, alarming, is that the City and County of Honolulu has already implemented almost all of the suggestions we are making here on the Big Island, and they did it years ago. And they haven’t worked.

The report concludes that despite having the means and the tools to modify the permitting system to make it responsive and efficient, the department’s managers have failed to achieve any substantially improved performance of the system. The report cites instances of what sound like management basically looking the other way, ignoring, or even essentially countermanding rules and processes. So, despite all the well-meaning and smart regulatory and process changes that were implemented at great cost of time and money back when Honolulu implemented its reforms, measures impacting that key determinant of system change, human behavior, and accountability measures documenting these, were neglected.

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This has huge ramifications for us here in Hawaii County as we concoct our system recommendations. We can come up with all the efficiencies, regulations, and platforms we can think of. They can then run the gauntlet of repeated iteration, public hearings, majority vote from County Council and eventual implementation. But, if we do not pay attention to how these purported improvements are managed, require administrative accountability for the efficiencies that we hope for, and foster improvement of the culture in which these processes operate, it’s all for nothing. Let’s profit from Honolulu’s example by keeping administrative accountability measures at the forefront as we embark on permitting reform. In the end, human behavior will out, and all the technical and process tweaks in the world won’t circumvent that.

Dennis Boyd is a regular contributor to West Hawaii Today. He is active in many aspects of the West Hawaii business community and is a resident of North Kohala.

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