City officials are rewriting a big chunk of Honolulu’s zoning code — the first such effort in decades — raising concerns in many corners, including with City Council Chair Tommy Waters, who is taking steps to slow it down.

The measure would affect a wide range of properties, including agricultural lands, mixed-commercial areas, housing construction, residential treatment homes and agritourism destinations. Bill 10 has drawn hundreds of comments, many critical, as people learn through the grapevine about the proposed zoning changes.

Kualoa Ranch fears that its popular wedding business, which helps support its growing farm enterprises, could be stifled; aging farmers who live on small plots of land fear being ousted from their homes because they aren’t cultivating enough acreage; farm stands say they might be forced out of business or have their operations curtailed.

Agricultural land sale sign
At various locations between Wahiawa and Haleiwa, signs have appeared offering agricultural land for sale. The City Council bill under consideration would have an effect on agricultural land as well. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Others fear the city would, by default, end up picking new winners and losers in the food industry. The new law would permit more food trucks in more places, boosting entrepreneurism but further undermining brick-and-mortar eateries that are still struggling in the wake of Covid 19 restrictions, staff shortages and price increases.

It would encourage housing construction by allowing additional units in areas where they previously were not permitted and allowing more multi-unit housing in buildings that could rise up to 40 feet.

The measure has also stoked the debate on the allowable distance between industrial wind turbines and houses, stores and schools.

Sweeping Changes

The bill has moved forward quickly. Last week, it passed its second reading and was referred back to the planning and zoning committee for final amendments. Waters said he is conferring with the committee’s chair, Brandon Elefante, about how fast the rest of the process should go.

Officials in the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, which is in turmoil following a bribery scandal last year and the recent resignation of two of its leaders, said the proposal has been under consideration since 2018 and that a revision of the city Land Use Ordinance is long overdue.

“The LUO hasn’t been comprehensively updated in 30 years; since then technology has changed, our people’s values have changed, council has adopted plans that we need regulations to implement,” DPP Land Use Permits Division Chief Katia Balassiano said in an emailed statement.

She added that the bill, which reflected what she called a “thoughtful and intentional effort,” will benefit the community and a number of different sectors, including agriculture, utilities, housing and commercial uses.

“It’s in good shape and ready to be acted upon by the City Council,” Balassiano said.

Others, however, are looking to apply the brakes. In an emailed statement, council chair Tommy Waters said he introduced Bill 10 on behalf of the city administration in February, but he has also come to believe the measure needs more studied deliberation.

Honolulu City Council chair person Tommy Waters listens to testimony during floor session at Honolulu Hale.
Honolulu City Council chair Tommy Waters is putting the brakes on a major city rezoning plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“While we have held five public hearings on the measure since then, I agree with the concerns being expressed by community members regarding the need for additional time to review these comprehensive amendments proposed by the Department of Planning and Permitting,” he said. “I also want to make sure that DPP is in a position where it has leadership in place that can implement these amendments when passed by the Council.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office declined comment, referring questions to officials at DPP.

Other council members declined to publicly endorse the bill.

Elefante, who has been traveling and is running for state Senate, said he was unavailable for comment and declined to provide a statement about the bill.

Waters provided a statement but declined to discuss it. Council member Esther Kiaaina, who also serves on the planning and zoning committee, said she couldn’t comment on the record because she is still reviewing it.

The document appears intended to remedy some widely known problems, such as the growth of so-called gentlemen farms that are thinly disguised custom-built housing placed on agricultural lots, and also the need to find ways to encourage home construction in the face of spiraling housing costs. Officials also want to encourage food sustainability by protecting agricultural lands from development.

‘Piecemeal Approach’

The 239-page document’s exact extent and reach is hard to determine because subsections don’t conform to the existing chapters and subsections of the city land ordinance — something officials said will be fixed in a later document.

Many City Council observers have been startled by the scope, specificity and speed of the rezoning effort, which they said occurred with little opportunity for public comment.

“I am honestly shocked by the piecemeal approach the City’s Department of Planning and Permitting has taken,” veteran land-use planner Thomas Witten, chairman emeritus of real estate development firm PBR Hawaii and Associates, told the council in testimony on Aug. 22. “From what I have been able to determine, there has been a lack of community engagement with land owners that will be impacted by the proposed modifications.”

Former council member Ann Kobayashi said many of the issues that the bill is raising should have been introduced as separate measures so each could be separately examined, with enough time for public consideration and for council members to be able to make a decision on each aspect separately.

“Some of these issues are too important to have it all put into one bill,” Kobayashi said in an interview. “It makes you begin to think what are they trying to cover up, with DPP already having issues.”

Former Honolulu City Council Ann Kobayashi, pictured here in 2016, thinks it is better for bills to be given enough time for full consideration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Community activist Larry McElheny said he does not think it makes sense for DPP to engage in revising the city’s Land Use Ordinance until it gets its own house in order.

“Due in part to the unsettled situation at DPP — whereby enforcement of our land use laws, including the LUO, is spotty at best, I have concerns about tampering with the LUO at this point in time,” he told the council in testimony.

Another community activist, Natalie Iwasa, pleaded with city officials to slow the process and rethink it.

“This is a very complex bill,” she told council members on Sept. 7.

“These regulations are very difficult to understand,” she added. “I ask that you have more discussion in the communities — you can do that via town hall meetings, make announcements at neighborhood boards level so they can put it on their agenda. As far as I know there is no reason to rush this through. We need to get it right.”

The rezoning effort was launched during former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration. The City Council first appropriated money in 2018 to begin an update of zoning regulations, which had not been done since 1986. Some of the work was done by consultants. The proposed ordinance was reviewed and approved by the city’s Planning Commission.

More recently, a companion measure focusing on the shoreline, which also has sweeping ramifications, has drawn attention away from it. Bill 41 seeks to slow shoreline erosion and block future development by establishing setbacks of at least 60 feet on coastal lands.

A review of the language in Bill 10 suggests that many areas and many people would be affected if the bill were to pass.

“Some of these issues are too important to have it all put into one bill.” — Former council member Ann Kobayashi

Agritourism destinations that offer kayaking, ziplining or mountain biking would need to ensure that half of their business operations involved crop-tending or livestock-keeping. They would be allowed to hold only one wedding a week, with a limit of 50 guests, with no more than 10 parking spaces provided to encourage shuttle use. Full-size buses, however, would not be permitted. A roofed pavilion provided to shelter people from the rain could not be more than 1,000 square feet.

Beekeepers would face new rules. Only two beehives, for example, would be permitted on a lot less than 10,000 square feet.

The ordinance introduces a new concept of “transferable development rights,” which would allow the owners of historic buildings to sell rights to allow others to build larger buildings elsewhere.

Bill 10 would increase housing by allowing the construction of more two-unit and three-unit dwellings, including in mixed-use zones and resort districts, and by permitting residential uses in upper floors above stores and offices.

City officials hope Bill 10 will help preserve farm land on Oahu but some farmers think it could make farming more difficult. Courtesy of Jim and Gretchen Cain

At least 50% of the land area of agricultural properties would need to be used to grow crops or tend livestock. Farm dwellings could not exceed 5,000 square feet.

Only one farm stand would be permitted on an agricultural parcel, and it would not be allowed to have electricity, running water or sewer service.

Farmer’s markets would be restricted to operating between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.

There are also new provisions affecting energy generation, particularly wind turbines, although the details have yet to be determined and the setbacks are a subject of debate.

Hundreds of local residents are speaking out upon learning how they may be affected.

Potential Conflicts

Taylor Kellerman, director of diversified agriculture at Kualoa Ranch, for example, said the ranch’s wedding business trade helps support its food production and distribution businesses. About 400 weddings are held each year at the Windward Oahu property and the 50 wedding limit “would affect our bottom line,” he told the council.

Frederick Mencher, vice president of the East Oahu County Farm Bureau, said some of the proposed regulations conflict with existing law or create new complications. The provision that would ban electricity and running water at farm stands would undermine practices “necessary for sanitation,” he said.

It was only one of the problems Mencher said he saw in the bill.

“There’s too much in Bill 10 really to have a good discussion on all its points,” he said.

The DPP’s Balassiano said the department consulted many stakeholders, including government agencies, consulting firms and developers. The process was handled “with great transparency,” she said in the statement.

A public hearing is scheduled to be held before the City Council’s planning and zoning committee on Sept. 26.

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