When is a moratorium not a moratorium? Apparently, when it’s not a moratorium.

Conflicting information has come out of the Honolulu Department of Environmental Services regarding how much the city is limiting the number of new sewer connections that can be added to the the city’s system from Halawa to Pearl City.

On April 20, the department’s director, Tim Steinberger, sent a memo to the Honolulu City Council saying any applications for new sewer hook-ups in that area would be denied because the system was at capacity.

This “moratorium” would be in place until the city was able to refurbish two Pearl City force mains and construct a third at the Waipahu Wastewater Pump Station. The total cost for this work is estimated at $60 million, and work isn’t expected to be completed until 2018.

What this meant was that city officials would not permit any new developments — from single-family homes to large apartment complexes —because if too many toilets flushed it could overflow the system.

The only permits that might get approved would be those that don’t strain the capacity of the system. For the most part this would include projects that were a “1-to-1 replacement” or small additions, such as an extra bathroom to an existing structure.

But after a recent mayoral press conference on sewers at the Ala Wai Canal, Steinberger told Civil Beat that calling the moratorium a moratorium would be inaccurate. Development from Halawa to Pearl City is allowed, but only if it meets certain requirements.

“We look at each situation on a case-by-case basis, so to say it’s a moratorium is not really correct,” Steinberger said. “I don’t even call it a moratorium because a moratorium is saying it’s all shut down and it’s not completely shut down.”

Wait. What? Didn’t Steinberger just send out a memo a couple months ago saying the exact opposite? What gives?

“No NEW sewer connections will be allowed from Halawa to Pearl City,” the April 20 memo says. “The City’s Department of Planning and Permitting will not approve any new sewer connection permit permits for new developments or new, non-replacement structures.”

The way he describes it now is the city will look at each application for a permit and then make a determination based on the type of development.

All you need is a new bathroom?

“No problem.”

Planning a large development that’s LEED certified and reuses much of its water on site?

“It’s probably not going to be a problem.”

But what if you wanted to dump everything into the sewer?

“Then we’d have to look at that.”

While Steinberger doesn’t consider this a far cry from his earlier hard-line approach, it definitely softens his department’s extra bathroom and “1-to-1 replacement” stance.

It also comes at a time when the moratorium has become a campaign issue in the mayor’s race.

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano has been dinging the city for the sewer moratorium at his campaign chili and rice feeds. Cayetano is running against Steinberger’s boss, current Mayor Peter Carlisle, and holds a significant lead in the three-way race that also includes former Honolulu Managing Director Kirk Caldwell.

Since April 20, the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has processed 13 applications for sewer connections in the area between Halawa and Pearl City. Of those, seven were approved: one for a residential unit and the rest for retail and commercial properties.

According to Jiro Sumada, deputy director of the Planning and Permitting Department, the applications that were denied were mostly residential. The only non-residential application that was denied was for Leeward Community College.

“The applications that were approved were essentially projects that involved a one-for-one replacement of existing fixtures,” Sumada said in a written explanation of the figures. “Those that were denied were applications that would have increased the wastewater demand by increasing the number of fixtures in the area.”

He added that any applicant that was denied can appeal the decision to Department of Environmental Services for reconsideration.

City Council Member Breene Harimoto represents the district affected by the sewer connection moratorium. Harimoto’s senior advisor, Frank Streed, said his office believes the Department of Environmental Services is trying to be “reasonable” by loosening up the restrictions and considering developments on an individual basis.

“I don’t think they want to be responsible for shutting down development in that area, but at the same time we can’t afford sewage spills in that area either,” Streed said. “It’s a little bit of semantics in a sense. It’s not a hard and fast 100 percent moratorium. But for all practical purposes it’s a moratorium because you’re not allowing anything of a substantial nature that’s new.”

At least one major development, a senior living facility, could be affected by the sewer connection moratorium, Streed said. And there’s concern that another project, a 14-acre mixed-use development at the Kam Drive-In site, could experience delays if the city doesn’t upgrade the sewer system as promised.

“We’re trying to encourage (the Department of Environmental Services) to move as quickly as possible,” Streed said.

The largest question that remains in all this is: How did we get to this point?

City officials say there was a 12,000-home development that was supposed to make improvements to the pump station to handle the extra capacity. But in 2009 that project folded.

Steinberger said the city then had some unexpected problems with a couple of force mains in 2010 and 2011 that diverted attention away from the pump station upgrade to the piping project.

As a result, it’s expected that the sewer connection restrictions will likely remain until 2018.

Streed said the difficulty in placing blame in a situation like this is that the city was relying on the private sector to pay for public infrastructure work, which makes it subject to outside influences such as ebb and flow of the housing market and economy.

There’s also a question of prioritization. Where did the pump station project rank in the city’s list before a developer offered to upgrade the facility? And were there other, more urgent fixes that should be considered first?

“We have these problems island-wide,” Streed said. “The biggest part of the city’s capital budget is going to sewer projects because it’s just been neglected.”

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