Honolulu voters are being asked to establish an agency dedicated to managing thousands of acres of city land and another charged with handling climate change and sustainability.

The proposals are among 20 to amend the County Charter that will be on the ballot Nov. 8.

Both have the backing of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration, but raise questions about whether it’s a good idea to enlarge the city bureaucracy.

Cheryl Soon Charter Commissioner
Cheryl Soon at a Charter Commission meeting at Honolulu Hale. She helped to develop both of the proposed amendments. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Andrew Pereira, the mayor’s spokesman, said in an email that the administration doesn’t have cost estimates for either proposal.

But he noted that the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency called for in Charter Amendment 7 would be funded for two years through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Honolulu is one of 100 cities chosen to receive temporary funding to hire a “chief resilience officer” to develop and coordinate city policies to advance environmental priorities, among other responsibilities, Pereira said.

Both proposals “address issues that the city is going to grapple with whether you make the change or not.” — Cheryl Soon

Cheryl Soon, a former head of the Department of Planning and Permitting, helped craft both proposals as a member of the Charter Commission.

She said the Department of Land Management could be largely staffed by existing city workers who are employed in other departments, such as Planning and Permitting and Budget and Fiscal Services.

Both proposals “address issues that the city is going to grapple with whether you make the change or not,” Soon told Civil Beat.

Hawaii Kai community activist Natalie Iwasa believes neither agency is necessary. She pointed to existing staff working on redeveloping land around planned rail stations, and said she believes concerns about climate change could be incorporated into city planning without the need for a separate office.

“When we’re looking at an $8 billion rail project, billions of dollars in mandated EPA consent decree work and our poor water pipes haven’t really been replaced in decades, how can we justify creating a new office like this?” Iwasa said of the proposed climate change department.

Particularly Vulnerable

Despite Iwasa’s concerns about the climate change office, many people think it would be beneficial given Oahu’s vulnerability to potential climate change effects.

Supporters include University of Hawaii Law School Professor Maxine Burkett, who drafted the original proposal, and UH scientists Dolan Eversole and Chip Fletcher.

Eversole said he thinks establishing an office would likely be a “major step forward” and bring Honolulu more in line with other cities that already have agencies dedicated to sustainability and climate change resiliency.

Walkway overlooking a beach wall near the makai side of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. 5 March 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Waikiki is already struggling to retain a beachfront along portions of the shoreline. 

Soon said the office could be established without going through a charter change, but the proposal is “a strong acknowledgement that climate change is here to stay.”

Local environmental activist Donna Wong said she wishes the proposal was more far-reaching, describing it as “weak,” but she plans to vote for it.

But she strongly opposes the idea of Charter Amendment 8 to create a land management department, and cost is just one of the concerns.

“It’s a terrible idea. It just gives one department too much power.” — Donna Wong, speaking of the proposed land management department

While supporters say the agency would improve efficiency in property transactions and help the city fulfill its plans to spur redevelopment along the planned rail line, opponents worry the department would help fast-track development and the commercialization of city property.

Those opponents point to the now-defunct state Public Land Development Corporation created by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration. But the proposed city land management agency wouldn’t receive the same exemptions to environmental and permitting laws that sparked harsh opposition to the PLDC.

Hawaii Elections Guide 2016

“The Charter Commission took great pains to eliminate any circumvention of current reviews and approvals, and everything goes before the City Council,” Pereira wrote in an email.

Still, the proposal is viewed with suspicion by many of the same people who protested against the PLDC.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said Wong, a Kailua resident. “It just gives one department too much power.”

Soon noted that the department would not have jurisdiction over parks and the ballot proposal would require the department to hold a public hearing “to determine whether each transaction or activity relating to city real property interests serves the public interest.”

The agency would also need to prepare a report describing how the transaction serves the public interest, and then the City Council would need to pass a resolution in order for the transaction to proceed.

Soon believes that adding a public hearing and report at the department level would provide more transparency than the current process, in which potential sales of city land already come before the Council.

Commercialization Of Public Lands?

Another argument for creating the department is that concentrating land management in one agency would improve efficiency.

“Creating ‘one shop’ where all land management-related functions would take place leads to significant efficiencies,” Periera said.

North Shore resident Blake McElheny said he’s not sure that’s necessarily a good thing because it could enable the commercialization of public lands.

“A one-stop-shop makes it much easier for the city to negotiate TOD developer ‘give-aways’ and incentives up to 1⁄2 mile radius around 21-rail stations,” he said in an email, using the acronym for transit-oriented development, the term for redeveloping neighborhoods around planned rail stations.

Blake McElheny was raised on the North Shore and actively participates in community life.
Blake McElheny 

He said it’s hard for the public to put its trust in the city to manage land when city officials made deals in the past that he thinks prioritized developers’ needs over the public’s.

McElheny cited the case of a proposed luxury condo-hotel that received exceptions to city height and density rules, but only provides funding for 20 affordable units. The Caldwell administration was willing to approve the development without requiring any affordable units.

“That seemed like a horrible way of launching TOD,” McElheny said. “Because of the track record of this particular administration and previous administrations of trying to do deals behind the public eye, we’re fearful that this would be abused … The public has had to litigate against the administration because of the public feeling that public lands are not being protected.”

He also doesn’t think that there’s enough evidence that the department is necessary.

During a Charter Commission meeting earlier this year, Soon said that if no division or office is established, it’s unlikely that the city will be able to capture significant revenue from development around the rail line.

A Charter Commission report that Soon contributed to noted that creating the department now might be premature.

Mahealani Cypher, who serves on the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, agrees with that assessment.

“I’m not sure we’re ready for it yet,” she said. “I would rather hold off on that one.”

But Soon pointed out recently that waiting for the next charter review period a decade from now may be too late. In 10 years, the rail line is supposed to be up and running and redevelopment may have already happened.

“To wait 10 years in the case of TOD is really not wise,” Soon said.

Read the proposed charter amendments below:

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