Small Business Matters: Along with a lot of other things, permitting is on the ballot

  • A construction worker checks on the roofing at a home being built in North Kona in this file photo. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Readers of this column have seen me go on about the Hawaii Island building permit process on more than one occasion. Bottom line: it’s a problem. It’s a problem for contractors, it’s a problem for businesses looking to expand or start, and it’s a problem for homeowners.

All of that combined makes it a problem for the community at large, especially in light of current economic conditions where agility in pivoting to some new normal is at a premium. We can’t pivot if we can’t move, and the permit process as it has existed in Hawaii County has all too often been a tale of a solid object hitting what seems like an immovable, or rather, inscrutable, force.

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Businesses and homeowners have got to be able to move forward with projects in a relatively straight forward, predictable fashion. That’s what injects money and stability into the economy in the form of wages for construction efforts, new or expanding businesses that can generate wealth and jobs, and housing for residents. Overly circuitous paths towards accomplishing a finished building project cost money, money that is surely scarcer today than it has ever been.

A confusing and inefficient building regulatory environment also dampens enthusiasm in entrepreneurs and creates cynicism in the community. It lends itself to the development of a “never mind, it will never work, so why bother starting” attitude, or one that says, “let’s cut corners and do it under the table.” This has got to change if we are going to weather the foreseeable future, where almost all of our key economic indicators point to limited growth. For the state, “we now have the distinction of having the weakest economy in the country,” says University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization’s Carl Bonham. For Hawaii County, a building permit process that continues as it has done predicts this distinction will continue locally.

The Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce has been working to try to provide a conduit to the county on the business community’s concerns about the permitting process through its Permitting Task Force. It has made some inroads, but frankly not a whole lot in the way of concrete results. There is a new County Code that provides a foundation for future improvements, and the task force provided input and support for that, but that is only a foundation. And it appears that nothing will be forthcoming in the way of more straightforward rules or regulations until at least next summer.

What the task force has succeeded in doing quite well, however, is raising the issue of permitting as a major barrier to economic development to a level of political attention that hasn’t been apparent before. Recent Chamber public interviews with the two candidates for Hawaii County mayor, Mitch Roth and Ikaika Marzo, demonstrated that. (See the Chamber’s YouTube channel).

Both candidates were on board with the chamber in their views that the permitting process needs to change. In response to questions about permitting reform, Roth stressed the need for a single county computer system, accountability within the county departments, departmental policies enforcing timelines, plan rejections quoting “exact sections of the law so people didn’t have to guess,” “one bite at the apple” (referring to a permit applicant being required to fix building plan deficits only once after county review instead of multiple times), and common sense interpretations of regulations regarding permits so people will know “ if you follow the law your permit will be approved.” He also committed to a “seat at the table” for the community in ongoing discussion with the county, including the mayor, on continuing improvements.

Marzo talked about “streamlining building codes to allow modular housing and other creative solutions,” grandfathering in existing buildings, having the Public Works Department “work with the people,” appointing an “out-of-the-box” (noncounty employee) to the deputy director position, and referenced a personal story of his frustrations with multiple plan revisions. Both candidates emphasized the need for more intra-county coordination to solve permitting problems.

It seems the politicians have heard the community, loud and clear.

Now, to be fair, county work continues on EnerGov, the new system for permitting review that promises transparency. This is the oft-delayed system that was slated to go “live” several years ago. Last year, beta testing forced recognition that the system needed additional work, and the county went back to the drawing board on it. The task force looks forward to participating in another round of testing on an improved system this fall. But a system is only a tool, and people and regulations, and organizational culture, guide the use of a tool.

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Government structures exist for the purposed of furthering community welfare; efficiency, accountability, and transparency in administering them are what a community should expect. This election essentially puts those basic public goals on the ballot.

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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