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New Permitting System Causing EPIC Headaches for Some Users

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The county rolled out its Electronic Processing Information Center, or EPIC, permitting system a little more than a year ago to improve transparency, streamline the building permit application and approval process and clear up a backlog of applications.

The change has been difficult to navigate, for the county Department of Public Works and the public. There remains frustration with the new system, from the amount of time it takes to get an application approved to the requirements a permit must meet.

Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works Director Stephen Pause

“We submitted our plans Feb. 4,” an Ocean View resident, who didn’t want to be identified, wrote to Big Island Now in an email, adding that the EPIC system told them they should have had their permit by May 4. “We currently have been waiting seven months for our permit.”

The Ocean View resident said they were told in June that the department wasn’t looking at any 2022 permits until it finished 450 left from 2021, and by early July they were told it would only be two more weeks for their permit.

“The latest now is Sept. 12,” they said. “Their claim of 90 days is nothing more than wishful thinking.”

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The Ocean View resident claimed the department is just now enforcing codes implemented in 2006 and called out other codes permits must meet.

“Codes requiring interior door hold openers (are) ridiculous. Ground termite spraying is required on all new construction, even if it is on solid rock. A complete waste of money,” they said. “All homes must have wind-borne debris boards cut to fit, labeled and fasteners already installed permanently on the home before final inspection. As if we have no warning if and when a hurricane is coming.”

The Ocean View resident said the department is completely out of touch and added that their last home final inspection consisted of an inspector checking smoke detectors and leaving.

“I know we are not the only ones waiting a lifetime for a permit and it is having a serious effect on everyone from contractors to supply houses to laborers and down the line,” they said.

Stephen Pause, who was named DPW’s new director earlier this month, replacing former director Ikaika Rodenhurst, listed his highest priority as continuing the ongoing effort of the DPW Building Division to improve the permitting process using the EPIC system.

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While he couldn’t comment on some of what the Ocean View resident was reporting, as there was no permit application number, tax map key or applicant name provided and therefore the particular issues reported for that specific application could not be identified, Pause did offer some general information regarding the building permit review processes.

He said part of the application process is handled by other agencies, including the county Planning Department, Hawai‘i Fire Department, state Department of Health and the county Department of Environmental Management, which DPW has no authority over. The department also cannot enforce a deadline on those other agencies to require them to review permit applications within a certain time frame.

“Without knowing when other agencies will complete their review, DPW is not able to promise a specific date of approval,” Pause told Big Island Now in an email. “The EPIC system does set timeline goals for each task to be completed; however, it does not promise any final approval dates to applicants.”

Further, the director said, it is not true that “new” permits are not “looked at” until the old ones are finished.

“Generally, permit applications are categorized based on the information entered by the applicant,” Pause said.

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Categories included photovoltaic, or PV; electrical only; residential; nonresidential; and others. Pause, while he was still interim director of the department, told Hawai‘i County Council members Aug. 2 during a meeting of the Public Works and Mass Transit Committee that average time for PV-only permits to be approved is now about two weeks and average time for residential permit applications to be processed through intake is about 30 days after the application is submitted.

“The timeline for the different types of permits varies,” Pause said in his email. “DPW is processing older and new permits applications.”

In regard to code requirements, buildings must comply with the code that was in effect when the permit application was submitted.

Specifically speaking to the codes mentioned by the Ocean View resident, Pause said the requirement for interior doors to bedrooms being capable of being secured has been enforced since 2015 when the county’s energy conservation code was amended, specifically Subsection R401.2.1 of the International Energy Conservation Code; ground termite treatment has always been a requirement; and the wind-borne debris requirement comes from the 2018 International Residential Code.

Generally, the permit application date determines what code the applicant must follow.

“If a permit was applied for in 2010 and received an extension, their building code would be the code in place at the time of permit issuance,” Pause said. “If a permit is applied for in 2022, they would need to follow the 2018 building code.”

A commenter on the Big Island Now story from Aug. 2 about Pause’s update on the EPIC system to the County Council’s Public Works and Mass Transit Committee also expressed frustration with the process.

“The intake reviewers on my project have kept moving the goalposts,” the commenter said. “They keep getting paid on taxpayer dollars while making my arch and drafstman jump through hoops. ‘We changed the forms so your arch has to stamp new forms.’ It’s the same form with different years on it … ‘Your arch’s stamp is now expired (this has taken so long) so have him stamp it again.’ What a frickin’ hassle. They are experts at pointless, inefficient bureaucracy, now it’s just digital.”

There are several scenarios that can result in permits being delayed, including applicants misunderstanding information.

“Many applicants do not know or understand the different stages of the permitting process,” Pause said in his email. “There are different steps in which an application must go through for approval.”

Hawai’i County Managing Director Lee Lord, left, and then-Department of Public Works Interim Director Stephen Pause appear Tuesday, Aug. 2, before the County Council Public Works and Mass Transit Committee. (Screenshot from video)

Perhaps an applicant was told that approval of their plan would be complete in 1-2 weeks, but after it is approved by the Planning Department, the permit must then be reviewed by the other agencies. Pause said that can take anywhere from two weeks up to six months, depending on the type of permit, whether the plans are complete and in compliance with code, length of time taken for revisions and resubmissions, among other reasons.

Missing information or errors on the plans that require revision or resubmission also can push back the timeline for approval.

Pause added that just as the rest of the state and United States are suffering from worker shortages, DPW is no different.

“There are delays in the EPIC process due to staff shortages caused by the impact of COVID as well as numerous vacant positions in the Building Division,” the DPW director said. “The county and DPW continue to make recruitment a high priority.”

Pause told council members during the Aug. 2 Public Works and Mass Transit Committee meeting that while progress has been made to decrease the time it takes an application to go through the permitting process and educate the public on the new system, there is still room for improvement. He reiterated that again in his recent email.

“DPW is aware of the concerns of the public to issue permits in a timelier fashion and is committed to improve our review processes and provide more outreach to seek public input on how we can improve our services,” he said.

According to data on the EPIC website, the county issued 369 residential and 91 nonresidential permits in July, with an average issuance time of 152 days for residential permits and 196 days for nonresidential permits for the period from February through the end of last month.

For more information about the EPIC system or to get help with the process, visit the county’s EPIC help library web page. The page has information about how to get started with the system, applying for a permit, what happens after submitting a permit application and more.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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