Hawaii environmental and cultural groups are raising the alarm about two bills in the Legislature that would make it easier for developers to get projects approved without undergoing the state’s review process for historic buildings.

The measures, Senate Bill 2633 and House Bill 1678, limit the definition of “historic property” in state law and specify what types of residences need to go through the review process. The proposals are intended to eliminate unnecessary permitting requirements for old homes that don’t actually have any historic importance.

Right now, the state considers any buildings or areas more than 50 years old to be “historic property.” The State Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources must conduct a review of the property before the counties can issue any permits for new projects.

Members of Hawaii’s construction industry say that the law ends up requiring unnecessary permits and delaying projects. They argue that is a waste of the DLNR’s resources and an unnecessary expense to homeowners and others who want to improve aging structures by adding bathrooms, solar panels or other similar renovations.

The House and the Senate separately passed both SB 2633 and HB 1678 and plan to meet in a conference committee this month to amend the bills.

But while the measures have more or less quietly advanced through the session, advocates for historic preservation are now marshaling opposition to the proposals out of fear that the latest drafts would vastly weaken laws protecting archaeological sites, including those involving iwi (bones) and wahi pana (sacred sites).

“Rather than using a surgical tool, they are using a chainsaw to address a perceived problem,” said David Frankel, an attorney at the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation.

An “Overly Broad” Law

The latest versions of both SB 2633 and HB 1678 have the backing of several groups representing the real estate and construction industries, including the Hawaii Association of Realtors, Pacific Resource Partnership and the Building Industry Association.

Myoung Oh, government affairs director at the Hawaii Association of Realtors, called the current law “overly broad.”

“Nearly half of Hawaii’s homes are approaching or already 50 years old or older,” Oh noted in his written testimony.

Another supporter, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, pointed to a backlog of project applications at SHPD, but DLNR Executive Director William Aila said that’s just a perception and applications usually take only seven days to process.

Still, Aila acknowledged that many of the 3,000 historic review applications the DLNR considered last year were unnecessary.

In his written testimony, Aila said SB 2322 “addresses the very real problem of unnecessary reviews of county permits for residences that meet the statutory definition of ‘historic property’ but which are, in fact, merely old.”

Unintended Consequences

Despite the intentions of the bills’ proponents to make the law more effective, historic preservation advocates say the latest drafts approved by House Water and Land Committee Chairwoman Cindy Evans, Senate Water and Land Committee Chairwoman Malama Solomon and Senate Technology and the Arts Committee Chairman Glenn Wakai leave cultural sites too vulnerable.

“The bill began as an attempt to exclude certain private residences from the provisions of the historic review law,” said Frankel from the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. “The most recent drafts go far, far beyond that and radically change the definition of historic property so that archaeological sites would no longer be protected.”

The organization’s executive director, Moses Haia, sent a letter to Senate President Donna Kim on April 7 arguing that the public should have the opportunity to testify on the latest drafts. He warned that the ambiguous language of the measures would either halt development projects or jeopardize historic sites.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is also getting involved in the issue. OHA spokesman Garrett Kamemoto said the organization, which previously merely submitted comments on the measures, now has concerns about the bills and the Board of Trustees is planning to take an official position on the matter on Thursday.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii is similarly rallying its members. The group sent out an email to supporters on Monday arguing the bills would “gut” Hawaii’s historic preservation law and cause the destruction of many historic sites.

Evans, who is co-chairing the conference committees for both bills, said she is waiting for OHA, the DLNR and historic preservation groups to suggest an acceptable version of the measure.

The lawmaker agreed with construction industry advocates that Honolulu is inundated with permits for minor changes to properties. But she said that if the language of the proposal is too confusing or can’t be agreed upon, “It may be we have to come back and finish this work next year.”

Aila from the DLNR said the department is working with local archaeological and cultural groups to amend the bill, as well as trying to address the problem administratively by providing guidance to the counties on what kinds of projects should receive historic review.

While he is still waiting to hear suggestions for the bill from OHA and other groups, Aila said, “We want to make it very clear that any excavation would not be exempt [from historic review], just the property.”

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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