In the face of strong opposition from labor and pro-development groups, Rep. Karl Rhoads killed a bill that would have given the state Land Use Commission the power to punish developers for reneging on their promises.

“The problem is it’s very controversial,” the Judiciary Committe chairman told Civil Beat after deferring the bill indefinitely Friday. “The political ducks were definitely not in a row. For a lift this big, it just wasn’t going to happen so that’s why we stalled it.”

The nine-member Land Use Commission makes decisions on whether to classify land as urban, rural, agricultural or conservation. While the agency can require developers to comply with certain conditions, if a developer fails to follow through, the commission’s only recourse is to revert the property back to its original classification.

And a recent Supreme Court decision concluded that the commission doesn’t even have the power to do that once a project has been “substantially commenced.”

Rep. Karl Rhoads talks to reporters in his office, Feb. 27, 2015.
Rep. Karl Rhoads talks to reporters in his office last year. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Rep. Ryan Yamane from Mililani introduced the measure, which was partially inspired by Ewa residents’ concerns over a Haseko development.

After receiving land reclassification approval in 1990 to build a marina community, the developer announced in 2011 that it was planning to build a lagoon instead, prompting homeowners to sue.

Yamane said after the hearing that he was disappointed that the measure didn’t pass because he’s been working on it for a year, but wasn’t surprised given the level of opposition and the fact that it’s an election year.

“Change is hard,” Yamane said. “People are fearful of change. I think this would have pushed the envelope of getting people to start looking at better planning, but I think might have to go with … baby steps.”

House Bill 2044 sought to give the commission the power to levy $50,000 per day fines on developers if they break the state land use law or don’t comply with the commission’s official orders.

The measure would have also given the commission the ability to modify or add conditions if a developer failed to comply with a project’s original conditions.

The bill’s supporters included the state Land Use Commission, Office of Planning, Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Conservation Council for Hawaii and Sierra Club.

The list of opponents was much longer: Hawaii Association of Realtors, Pacific Resource Partnership, Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, Building Industry Association of Hawaii, Hawaii Operating Engineers Industry Stabilization Fund, Laborers’ International Union of North America, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 368, Plumbers and Fitters Local 675, and Land Use Research Foundation.

The Pacific Resource Partnership, a non-profit representing the local carpenters’ union, testified that requiring developers to substantially conform to Land Use Commission permit requirements or risk permit modifications “would be unreasonable, result in unnecessary lawsuits and litigation and negatively impact project financing and development, as well as the overall economy in Hawaii.”

Rhoads said he almost didn’t call a hearing for the measure because it was so controversial. The hearing held late Friday afternoon was anti-climactic: not a single person testified, although planning officials and construction industry lobbyists were in attendance. Rhoads didn’t even call for a committee vote.

Despite killing the bill, the representative from Kalihi said he thinks there is “probably the necessity” of giving the Land Use Commission some enforcement power.

“When people are just totally at odds with each other, it’s very difficult to keep it going,” he said of the bill. “I didn’t have the time to give it the attention it deserved.”

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