Hawaii has some of the strictest land-use regulations in the nation, a daunting obstacle for developers and private citizens alike as they seek to build something new in the islands.

To help non-experts grasp state and county zoning laws that are often muddled with jargon, a team of local experts is creating an online map called the Hawaii Zoning Atlas.

The website was launched in June, the latest installment in a national initiative that includes other states. The team is still in the beginning stages of researching and gathering data, with hopes of completing a user-friendly, interactive online map in September. The map will outline all of the zoning districts, detailing what can and can’t be built in the state.

The stakes are high as critics often blame the onerous and byzantine zoning regulations for helping drive up housing costs and blocking affordable alternatives.

Trey Gordner stands with the backdrop of Honolulu in photograph made on Round Top.
Trey Gordner is the director of the Hawaii Zoning Atlas, a new digital zoning map. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The ultimate goal, according to the project’s director Trey Gordner, is “to create interest in zoning issues and find a new way forward on housing unaffordability and inequities in the housing supply.”

”The map is not intended to be a resource for developers who are trying to figure out how they can build more housing,” Gordner said. “It’s really intended to be an easy way to understand what the rules say and specifically what kind of community they’re leading us to.“

Gordner is leading the private initiative with two advisers, David Callies and Philip Garboden, University of Hawaii professors who specialize in land use and affordable housing. Gordner said that the team is searching for grants to help fund the project.

The map is being designed by local software designers and Code for Hawaii, a volunteer group that focuses on data and visualization.

Callies is a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law, and Garboden is an assistant professor at UH Manoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Hawaii joins eight other states that have launched zoning atlases. The project is a part of a national advocacy movement led by a group of professors, researchers and housing advocates.

The first zoning atlas launched in Connecticut in 2021. Director of the National Zoning Atlas Sara Bronin said the initiative helps people “make better decisions about zoning” on a local and statewide basis by providing all of the state’s zoning rules and regulations with glossary terms.

Bronin said zoning laws are important to understand because they affect people’s lives.

“One reason they can’t understand it is because the zoning codes are written in ways that are extremely difficult for the average person to understand,” Bronin said in a phone interview, adding that the terms are often technical and confusing.

The National Zoning Atlas has nine states, including Hawaii, that aims to provide a user-friendly, interactive tool for the public to understand zoning laws.
The National Zoning Atlas is meant to provide a user-friendly, interactive tool to help the public decipher zoning laws. Courtesy: National Zoning Atlas

Garboden said he anticipates the website will be most useful for neighborhood groups as well as anyone else involved in land-use policies or policy planning.

County departments have similar websites that provide zoning maps. Garboden said the key difference is that the county maps have technical descriptions of zoning while the atlas map is an interactive tool with glossary terms to break down the jargon.

“A good zoning atlas allows you to dig down below that level and estimate the impact of these changes,” Garboden said. “It’s more than just saying this area is zoned as R-1, it allows you to get under that and tell you what that actually means in terms of housing supply.”

Manoa Neighborhood Board Chair Dylan Armstrong said he’s “cautiously hopeful” that the zoning atlas will be a useful tool in discussions about affordable housing projects.

In a recent example, Manoa Chinese Cemetery owners faced criticism from the local community over plans for an affordable housing project for older adults. Some residents have characterized the forested land on the cemetery’s property as preservation land, claiming no housing should be built.

However, the area is zoned as P-2, a type of preservation land, so the cemetery owners have to apply for a permit under a state law that facilitates affordable housing by granting an exemption from state and county planning, zoning and construction laws.

Armstrong said the website may be well-intentioned but he’s skeptical about how the public will use it.

“Information is power, and power is a double-edged sword,” Armstrong said. “It can be misused. What people really need to do is demand that the government give people better and clear information about land use.”

Gordner said the website is just the beginning of the work.

“We’re going to have several milestones over the next few months, launching the website, launching the research around the neighbor islands, and then translating that into some analysis leading up to next year’s legislative session,” Gordner said.

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