Hawaiʻi County Council overrides Roth’s veto of bill intended to increase rezoning transparency
April 19, 2023, 3:07 PM HST
A bill intended to increase transparency and accountability in Hawai‘i County’s rezoning process, specifically when it comes to requests from developers for additional time to meet zoning change conditions, is now a county ordinance.
The Hawai‘i County Council on Wednesday overrode Mayor Mitch Roth’s veto of Bill 194. The measure requires any request for an initial time extension to meet the conditions of a zoning change to come back to the Council — before the expiration of the original change — for consideration in a public forum. It had been handled administratively by the director of the Hawai‘i County Planning Department.
The bill also increases the fee to apply for an extension from $250 to $500.
“Requests to change or alter the conditions of any change of zone ordinance shall be processed in the same manner as a zone change, unless the Council authorizes the changes or alterations to be made by the director,” the bill said.
The planning director, upon receiving a time extension request, will recommend its approval or denial, and then forward it to the Council for consideration via resolution.
If the rezoning applicant or developer fails to meet any conditions of the zoning change within the specified amount of time, the Council or the planning director can initiate the process to revert the property back to its original zoning or to a more appropriate designation.
The measure was introduced last year by Councilman Holeka Inaba and brings the authority of granting time extensions to the Council, which is the body in charge of granting a change of zone.
It also takes on a practice that supporters say has led to seemingly infinite time extensions for developers without taking into account how conditions and infrastructure might have changed.
The bill also keeps applicants and developers accountable for their time, according to supporters. As one testifier asked: If a contractor cannot fulfill its obligations in five years, what’s to say the contractor can in 20? Another testifier said the “loophole” that gives the planning director the authority to grant time extensions has been allowing developers to not follow through on their promises.
Inaba said Wednesday that Bill 194 ensures conditions of rezoning remain intact and that goalposts are not moved. During the past 40 years, there’s been no way for the public to know who has been granted time extensions, and it makes sense that the Council, which grants zoning changes, is the body to consider if an applicant has met the requirements for the change.
There were 82 written pieces of testimony in support of overriding the mayor’s veto and keeping Bill 194 in place and 10 in opposition. The majority of those who testified during Wednesday’s meeting were in support of the bill.
Those who disagree with the measure, including several Council members, conveyed concerns that it adds uncertainty to matters that have already been legislated; makes housing development, something that both sides agree is more than needed on the Big Island, a moving target; and is self-defeating, adding more barriers to development in a county that already has a lot of red tape to plow through.
“This change to the prior decades-long procedure not only limits the County’s flexibility to appropriately condition rezoning ordinances, it will also add expense, uncertainty and difficulty to the rezoning process, ensuring we maintain our position as the most regulated County in the nation,” said Roth’s veto message to the Council. “This will continue to impede our ability to provide housing and facilities such as hospitals, schools and job centers to our residents.”
The mayor added that the bill inappropriately removes the Planning Department staff, “those with the training and expertise to evaluate time extension requests,” from the decision-making process. He also warned that rezoning ordinances granted under the changes will undoubtedly include longer time periods to complete conditions, “eliminating the opportunity for a mid-point ‘check-in’ and readjustment.”
Councilwoman Cindy Evans countered that talk about red tape and barriers is unhelpful and solutions need to be found to create a culture of “can do.” This bill, she said, provides a new beginning and will light a fire under developers to get their jobs done. She agreed that the requirement of having to come back to the Council to get a time extension sheds light on the process, which is important for integrity and doing business within the County.
Many of those who support the measure said time extensions shouldn’t just be automatic.
Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas said when it comes to so-called restrictive land use requirements, yes, they are. Hawai‘i County is an island: “We have a finite precious resource and it is our responsibility to defend that resource to place the highest requirements for its use for the long-term, regenerative capacity for our water, for our oceans, for future generations.”
It’s not the Council’s job to remove uncertainties for developers, she said. The County’s housing market is “totally uncertain, period, because it’s been fundamentally founded upon over-reliance for external resources and homes being built here with the manini percentage requirement for affordable housing.”
The Council voted 6-3, with members Michelle Galimba, Ashley Kierkiewicz and Sue Lee Loy voting no, meeting the necessary two-thirds majority to override Roth’s veto. The vote was the same, including with the same members in opposition, on the second and final reading of the bill during the Council’s meeting on March 8.
“It’s disappointing that the Council chose to pass an imperfect bill today,” Roth said in a statement following Wednesday’s meeting. “That said, the Council has made its decision, and we will respect it and move forward accordingly.”
He also thanked those members who stood by his veto, “understanding the importance of transparency while refusing to pass unsound legislation.”
Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball said she is committed to having additional discussions with Inaba, the Planning Department and the Roth Administration to find a compromise so the new ordinance can be further tweaked to address more of the concerns.
“Should we be able to revisit the language, we will stand ready to engage in that process,” Roth said in his statement. “Otherwise, our administration will continue to make strides toward getting local families into homes and local builders onto job sites.”