Disclosure: Luke Evslin is a member of the Kauai General Plan Community Advisory Committee.

With the cast of a ballot, American democracy has taken another lurching step.

No matter how you feel about the result of the Nov. 8 election, it doesn’t mean that we can sit back and wait until the next one. Because democracy doesn’t mean just showing up at the voting booth— democracy means continually engaging with our community and our government.

And, unlike the black and white nature of elections (you either win or you lose), democracy is a never-ending shade of grey. Full of complexity, trade-offs and uncertainty.

The newly released draft of the 2035 Kauai General Plan is where local democracy comes alive.

Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach in Kauai.

Courtesy: Kyle Pearce/Flickr

The 350-page plan was compiled over 19 months after 35 community meetings, 13 Citizens Advisory Committee meetings, and thousands of survey responses. And, now it’s in draft form for the community to comment on until Dec. 2. Once this new round of community input is compiled and integrated into the plan, it’ll go before the Planning Commission and then to the County Council for its final approval.

Much more than any single political candidate or legislative act, this document has the potential to profoundly shape the island’s direction over the next century.

The General Plan is the county’s portion of our state Land Use Law. Enacted in 1961, the law is considered the first statewide growth management legislation in the country. “The LUL was written with two principles uppermost,” authors George Cooper and Gavan Daws wrote in their seminal text “Land and Power in Hawaii.” “Make urbanization efficient in the use of all types of resources; and preserve agricultural and conservation lands as much as possible.”

Because of that progressive law, we have one of the lowest rates of sprawl and the second-highest rate of increasing density in the country. Put those two figures together, and Hawaii is leading the nation in effective growth management.

But, as we all know, we’re also leading the nation in home prices.

It All Starts With The Plan

Which is why planning is so important. As I’ve written about before, it’s not a zero-sum choice between promoting housing and preserving agricultural land. With good planning, we can achieve both.

And the struggle to maintain our open space and agricultural land while reducing the cost of housing starts with the general plan.

The key aspect of the LUL is the dual state and county authority. The State Land Use Commission zones land as urban, agricultural, conservation or rural. Conservation land falls under the purview of the the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (our mauka interiors) while the rest falls under the authority of each local planning department and planning commission. The counties control density on urban and rural land and have power over the creation of subdivisions on agricultural land.

Woven through the plan is the clear theme that all of our issues are interconnected: social equity, a declining sense of community, health, traffic, high home prices and climate change.

In order for the state to change zoning, the land has to first be redesignated under each island’s county general plan. So, in effect, the state and county each have veto power over land use decisions.

The county general plan ends up as a sort of bible for the island by laying down firm commandments (through the land use designations) and a moral code for shaping our direction through the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, capital allocations and county policy.

This is the first update since 2000 and the new plan should take us through 2035.

Every Kauai resident should read the document in its entirety. It gives an overview of the problems we face, the interrelated aspect of their solutions and the clear need for a change in direction. No simple summary or columnist spin can do justice in communicating those issues. Woven through the plan is the clear theme that all of our issues are interconnected: social equity, a declining sense of community, health, traffic, high home prices and climate change.

The plan clearly lays out how rampant development of agricultural lands is exacerbating our affordable housing crisis, stretching infrastructure resources and the county budget too thin, increasing traffic, and eroding our sense of community. And, if nothing is done, this erosion of our island will continue unabated. Which is why the plan makes a clear and compelling case for bold action.

Marie Williams, long-range planner for the county, explained to me that in trying to reduce sprawl, “the county will need to do a better job at spurring development on the limited lands available for growth.”

Traffic on Kauai

If you drive on Kauai, the General Plan will affect you every day.

Luke Evslin

And so one part of the solution, as outlined in the plan, is to prioritize infill development in our towns —especially Lihue — by setting up clear growth boundaries, reducing regulatory burdens, increasing density, improving infrastructure, prioritizing walkability and encouraging a mixture of uses (commercial and residential). As I’ve written before, all of these are core concepts in growth management and have been shown to be effective tools in preserving open space, stabilizing home prices, controlling traffic and reducing inequality.

Literally every section of the plan, from health to housing, comes back to this theme of increasing both the density and the livability of our town cores rather than continually expanding outwards into our low density agricultural regions.

Taking On The Traffic

One of the ways that this plays out is in the way that the plan connects traffic with land use. Because we will never have the funding for all the road improvements necessary (and, also as I’ve written before, road widening isn’t a long-term traffic solution), land use is the most effective tool in managing congestion.

Kapaa traffic is the worst on the island with no affordable solution in sight, and so the plan discourages all growth north of the Wailua bridge. This policy is enacted through the land use maps, where the “urban center” designation at the proposed Hokua Place development is changed to “agriculture” — ensuring that the controversial development project will not go forward.

The plan also makes a bold statement on tourism by stating that “Kauai’s heavy reliance on the visitor industry — from the number of jobs supported by visitor spending to the percentage of real property revenue generated from resort uses — is considered a threat to resilience. The general plan’s policies and action support renewal, rather than expansion, in the visitor industry.”

This policy of renewal rather than expansion comes to fruition through the unprecedented step of changing the land use designation on 352 acres of vacant resort land (Princeville, Nukolii, Waimea) to agriculture. Again as I’ve written before, because there are no building permits, those are the only three vacant resort properties on Kauai where the land use could be changed without triggering a lawsuit. This effectively takes a huge chunk of land that would’ve eventually turned into resorts, to land that will now stay in agriculture.

The effects of climate change are also woven throughout the plan. Mitigation (reducing emissions) and adaptation (adjusting to a warming climate) each have their own section, and there’s a strong goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Once again, land use (such as increasing density and mixed use development), is shown to be an integral component of reducing our cumulative emissions.

The plan includes a metric for measuring progress, a biennial reporting period on the progress of the plan, and it puts responsibility on both the government and the community in ensuring that we all work together toward achieving the stated goals.

And, that is the key. We can’t just rely on our County Council or planning department to see it through. For it to be successful, the community has to get involved with the plan. Share your thoughts with the planning department by emailing it at plankauai@kauai.gov, attend one of its open house meetings, and then let’s all get involved in making sure that the policies come to fruition.

This type of direct involvement is how communities function and it’s how we make democracy work.

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