Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s push to develop state land through the now-defunct Public Land Development Corp. was unpopular, to say the least.
The agency was supposed to use private-public partnerships to bring in more revenue for the state, but its exemptions to environmental laws and county zoning policies infuriated environmentalists and residents of neighbor islands who didn’t have representation on the PLDC board.
The three top candidates vying to replace Abercrombie hope to avoid a similar misstep as more development controversies loom. City planners are considering a 11,750-home development called Hoopili, and City Council members are mulling a North Shore development plan that would include more hotels at Turtle Bay Resort and 800 homes in Malaekahana.
The candidates were reticent to weigh in on specific controversies, indicating that development proposals should be vetted by local communities.
But they did share their general perspectives on how to provide more housing, protect farmland and improve land use regulations in Hawaii.
Duke Aiona, the Republican candidate, says he is a strong believer in the free market. But given the dearth of low-income housing in Hawaii, he thinks the state should divert tax revenue to provide more rental units.
“I don’t mess with the free market but I think what we can do is try to close that gap and look for ways in which we can build those affordable homes for families,” said Aiona, who served as lieutenant governor for eight years under former Gov. Linda Lingle.
Some 44 percent of Hawaii residents are renters, and the median cost of a single-family home reached $700,000 earlier this year.
Aiona has proposed dedicating 25 percent of corporate tax income revenue to the Rental Housing Trust Fund, a pool of money that helps finance low-income rental housing projects.
His campaign predicts that within seven years, the policy would produce housing for 19,500 people.
The former city prosecutor also thinks that decreasing how long it takes developers to get projects approved would bring down the cost of housing. He suggested finding ways to help developers lower costs by providing land and engaging in private-public partnerships, but in a more transparent way than the PLDC.
“You want to streamline that process as best as you can,” Aiona said. That might even involve getting rid of the state Land Use Commission, Hawaii’s state-level zoning entity, which Aiona said he would be open to eliminating.
That doesn’t mean he’s not concerned about preserving farmland. Aiona said landowners should designate important agricultural lands and that the state should facilitate that process.
“We have a mandate,” he said, referring to Section 11 of the state constitution which says the state shall “conserve and protect” farmland. “Let’s get that done.”
Like Aiona, David Ige thinks that the problem with Hawaii’s high cost of housing lies in a lack of supply, and would support more state funding for rental housing and streamlining the state and counties’ lengthy permitting process.
As Senate Ways and Means Committee chairman, the Democract helped set aside $33 million this year for the state’s Rental Housing Trust Fund, but he thinks that’s just a start.
Overall, Ige wants better long-range planning that takes into account both development and the need for agricultural land to improve Hawaii’s food security and help the state reach its energy goals.
“I think it’s about smart planning, it’s getting back to long-range planning,” said Ige, who works as an engineer in addition to serving in the Legislature. “At least we would have a clear road map of where we want to steer development, rather than having a confrontation over development every single time you have to reclassify agricultural land.”
Along with delineating important agricultural lands, he wants to provide more long-term leases for small farmers and encourage co-ops.
“We need to look at agriculture and land in agriculture in the context of what the current state of technology is and what makes the most sense in terms of being able to be the most efficient producers of the food that we want to eat,” he said.
Ige also believes that the state should get more involved in transit-oriented development (TOD), the catch phrase for the city’s planned development around rail. The city is in the process of creating special TOD development plans and zoning rules to impose on specific areas.
“I really don’t think that it should be an overlay,” Ige said. “I think that we need to incorporate planning for our transit system into our core planning and long-range functions.”
Hawaii Independent Party candidate Mufi Hannemann has a longer track record on development decisions than his opponents.
Before entering politics, Hannemann was a vice president at C. Brewer & Co., one of the Big Five agricultural companies in Hawaii. As a member of the Honolulu City Council, he served as chairman and also at one point led the City Council’s Economic Development and Planning Committee.
As mayor, he pushed through the Honolulu rail project,which the city had been debating for decades. He also brokered deals to preserve land at Waimea Valley and Pupukea-Paumalu.
Hannemann also has been criticized for jumping the gun on signing multi-million-dollar rail contracts and doling out contracts to campaign donors.
He recently told Civil Beat he’s dedicated to collaborative leadership and has the ability to produce results.
While he wants to increase the supply of housing like Ige and Aiona, he proposed doing so by lessening housing demand from students, service members and Native Hawaiians.
He suggested working with the University of Hawaii to provide more on-campus housing; collaborating with the military to provide more on-base housing; and helping the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands fulfill its mission of providing homes for Hawaiians.
He wants his running mate, Les Chang, a UH alumnus and Air Force veteran, to take the reins on that project as lieutenant governor.
Like Ige, Hannemann wants more land-use planning, describing state planning as currently “kind of drifting.” But like Aiona, Hannemann wants to streamline permitting and said he would be willing to eliminate the state Land Use Commission.
“If there’s a way to do it without circumventing the time it takes for people to provide input — we need to comply with the rules, regulations, make sure that we’re not compromising the environment — let’s look at it,” Hannemann said. “I don’t want to accept: Let’s keep it because that’s the way we’ve always done.”
Hannemann also said he is committed to preserving farmland and wants to identify important agricultural lands.
“I think there’s a balance that can be struck between having TOD and housing in leeward and central Oahu, and making sure that we continue to maintain and preserve prime agricultural land so that we can continue to have diversified agriculture,” he said.
He emphasized his commitment to abiding by the public process when pursuing new projects.
“You may not always agree, but at least let (critics) know that (their input) was factored in and try to find as much common ground for the common good,” he said.