Council passes construction code: New framework makes one permit for building, electric, plumbing and energy codes

Factory-built housing will continue to be allowed in Hawaii County’s new construction code, but with extra restrictions following a unanimous vote Wednesday by the County Council after a protracted discussion.

After previously agreeing to add increased inspections of factory-built homes, the council approved on a 5-4 vote implementing further restrictions by Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who had concerns Bill 197 gave FHB builders an unfair advantage over traditional site-built contractors.

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Voting no were Council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo, as well as Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy and Kohala Councilman Tim Richards.

The factory homes, envisioned as an affordable alternative to provide much-needed housing on the island, are built using plans approved by the county Building Division. Building, electrical and plumbing permits are required and the house is inspected once it is moved to the building lot and connected to utilities.

Factory-built housing has been in the building code since 2012 with few, if any, such homes being constructed. But plans by HPM Building Supply to make greater use of the structures to help increase the island’s affordable housing inventory concerned Poindexter. Her concerns increased when Deputy Building Division Director Neal Tanaka said the department had been talking with HPM about the prospect for two years.

“Bill 197 made provisions to help them skirt or not have the inspections,” Poindexter said. “We’re putting people in the homes that we need to ensure are safe.”

Poindexter’s comments, as well as her claims that the Building Division had agreed with her amendments, drew push-back from Tanaka.

“There’s a lot of misrepresentation that DPW is agreeing with you. We expressed our concerns with you,” Tanaka said. “I think we have made it clear that the Building Division is not sacrificing safety. … Safety is what we do.”

Lee Loy, who sponsored the original bill after working with the Building Division, said the amendments give an unfair advantage to FBH built outside the county, who aren’t required to get a county building permit, compared to ones inside the county, who do. That would mean a factory-built house built locally would need two building permits — once in the factory, once on the ground.

“These amendments actually strap some bureaucratic red tape over what we can do for affordable housing,” Lee Loy said. “I thought we were going to keep our workers working (but) we actually kick the door wide open for foreign factory-built housing.”

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The revamped construction code folds in building, plumbing, electrical and energy components. With the 197-page code consolidation comes a streamlining of the permit application and plan review process by consolidating what are currently separate permits from the existing codes into a single permit. Those in the construction industry have long decried what they see as a slow, overly cumbersome, bureaucratic and arbitrary permit process.

The council faced a looming deadline to pass the electrical and plumbing components, spurring the passage of the whole bill on final reading. The deadline for the building component of the construction code doesn’t come up until November, so more amendments are likely to be forthcoming, even after the bill passed.

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