Maui’s next mayor will face a growing housing crisis while also dealing with agricultural and environmental issues.
Voters are choosing between Elle Cochran and Mike Victorino, who both served multiple terms on the County Council.
Maui County will need an additional 14,000 to 16,000 housing units to meet the demand by 2025, according to a 2015 report by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
Both candidates said affordable housing is at the top of their priority lists.
Their plans aren’t groundbreaking and actually overlap in many cases. Both want more workforce housing projects, as well as changes in policies governing affordable housing.
“With a lot of these things, we don’t need to re-create the rules,” Cochran said. “We just need to work through the kinks and hurdles.”
Victorino and Cochran both support a Maui County Charter amendment on the ballot that would raise fines for unpermitted vacation rentals from $1,000 to $20,000.
Environmental issues also rank high with both candidates, specifically moving planned and existing developments away from shorelines in the face of sea level rise.
Cochran draws many of her housing proposals from a 14-point report she helped to prepare for the council in 2016.
They include allowing more units on lots, creating a catalogue of pre-approved unit plans to speed up the development process and looking at communities of tiny homes to boost the housing inventory.
“They’re not big mansions, but some people would be very happy to have a home like that,” Cochran said. “I’m open to all sorts of creative ideas.”
Cochran wants to streamline the development process, possibly by getting a third-party reviewer to evaluate plans to make sure they are in line with county laws. Honolulu already allows third-party reviewers to manage a developer’s permitting process.
Both candidates want to begin development on county-owned land, but their approaches differ slightly.
Cochran said she would have the county act as a general contractor and manage construction projects. Victorino envisions the county acting as more of a coordinator for housing projects.
Victorino suggested the county partner with nonprofit groups like Na Hale O Maui, a community land trust that develops affordable housing.
He also said he’d like to see more affordable rentals for Maui’s workforce, including rent-to-own units.
“It gives people a sense of hope,” Victorino said, adding that renting also gives people time to educate themselves on home-buying options before entering the market.
Victorino also took some points from the plan Cochran cites. He suggested selling about 61 county-owned lots near Sandhill Estates and using the revenue to purchase land closer to Kahului for developments.
Both candidates say Maui’s current workforce housing policy is ineffective, but their proposed changes are different.
The law governs any development with 10 or more housing units on it and requires developers to target 25 percent of their units for workforce housing.
Cochran’s criticism of the law stems from a provision that allows landowners to raise prices of those units up to market rates 30 years after they are occupied. It also gives homeowners who actually live in the units the option to sell them after 10, eight or five years, depending on their income bracket.
“We need to continuously have an inventory of affordable homes that stay affordable forever,” she said.
Cochran proposes keeping the workforce units at affordable rates in perpetuity. She introduced a council bill to do that, but it has not been given a hearing.
Victorino wants to focus on more incentives to get developers building. The policy already allows developers to receive housing credits if 100 percent of their units are for workforce housing.
“I don’t see an influx of workforce housing,” Victorino said. “We gave contractors the opportunity to step up to the plate.”
He suggested trying to secure more state funding to attract developers to build housing projects.
Victorino also said he wants to force developers to come up with a timeline for finishing their projects and hold them to it.
“I’m at the point in my life where I don’t want to wait,” he said.
Victorino’s critics might not see him as an environmentalist, but he insists he is, saying, “I love this land like everyone else.”
As a Maui councilman, Victorino voted against a moratorium banning genetically modified organisms in Maui County , citing flawed language. Voters pushed the measure into law through a citizen initiative, but a federal court invalidated the moratorium in 2016.
Now he said he wants to look closer at chemicals and pesticides used on lawns and in the county’s agriculture. At a 2014 forum, he said that he wanted to separate discussion of pesticide and chemical use from the GMO issue, Maui Now reported.
“We need to work to eliminate, where we can, any chemical use,” he said.
Victorino also helped to introduce county legislation to ban plastic bags, polystyrene containers and smoking at bus stops.
He said one of his goals as mayor would be to unify the Valley Isle’s water system. Right now, there are four separate systems in West Maui, Central, Upcountry and East Maui. He said that creates problems with getting needed water to some areas.
He proposes building three 100-million-gallon wells in Upcountry and then connecting the Central and Upcountry systems.
Cochran’s issues also involve water. She disapproves of the county’s injection wells, which are supposed to send filtered water from treatment plants to agricultural lands for irrigation. Instead, the wastewater was illegally discharged into the ocean, a federal court ruled in 2014. The county was fined $100 million for violating the Clean Water Act.
Cochran said she raised concerns about the wells with the council but was ignored until the environmental group Earthjustice sued the county.
“That could have been prevented,” she said.
Cochran’s entrance into politics was rooted in environmental issues. She helped lead the Save Honolua Coalition, which formed in 2006 to stop a golf course development in the area around Honolua Bay.
In 2013, then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie appropriated $23 million to buy 240 acres of land around Honolua for preservation.
Rising sea levels worry both Victorino and Cochran. Both say that properties and infrastructure near shores need to be moved further inland.
One suggestion is building new developments more mauka than makai.
As for current buildings or those already planned, Cochran said that they’d have to be re-evaluated as well.
“Sometimes, you have to cut your losses and walk away,” she said.
Victorino has outraised and outspent Cochran. The most recent campaign finance reports from Aug. 11 show that he has $33,000 on hand while Cochran was running a deficit of $1,200.
He also has the financial backing of major unions like the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union, the engineers, masons and carpenters unions, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the statewide police union.
He received smaller donations from construction companies and businesses.
He also raked in donations from the Alexander and Baldwin development company and several Honolulu and mainland contractors.
Cochran’s only major endorsements came from Unite Here Local 5, the Sierra Club and the Maui Pono Network.
Her major financial backing came from immediate family, as well as $4,000 from the hotel workers union and several $2,000 donations from individuals.
Union backing might have meant an easy victory for Victorino in the past, but not anymore, said Dick Mayer, a former Maui College professor and land planner.
“In the past, it would have been a slam dunk for whoever’s backed by the big unions,” Mayer said. “But the demographics on Maui has drastically changed. It depends on whose people get out to vote.”
Victorino pulled in a plurality of votes in the Aug. 11 primary. He led Cochran 13,556 to 10,439. Don Guzman, the next-highest vote-getter, got 8,190 votes. The councilman representing Kahului hasn’t endorsed either candidate.
In the primary, Cochran fared best in West Maui, South Maui, Upcountry and rural East Maui, while Victorino did well in Wailuku, Kahului and parts of Kihei and Pukalani in Upcountry. He also led on Lanai and Molokai.
“Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic,” Victorino said.
So is Cochran.
“I feel really good,” she said. “The people, they’re so ready for change. They’re tired of the same old business as usual.”
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