Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 General Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.

The following came from Matthias Kusch, candidate for Hawaii County Council District 2, which includes Downtown Hilo, Bayfront, Wailoa, Portion of Waiakea Houselots, University Heights, Komohana Gardens, portion of Waiakea- Uka, Lanakila, Mohouli, Ainako, Kaumana, Piihonua, Wailuku and Waianuenue. His opponent is Jennifer Kagiwada.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the General Election Ballot.

Candidate for Hawaii County Council District 2

Matthias Kusch
Party Nonpartisan
Age 56
Occupation Retired Hawaii Fire Department battalion chief of operations
Residence Kaumana

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

West Hawaii Fisheries Council; EB deSilva PTA (fundraising chair and president, four years), School Community Council (president, 10 years); Hilo Bayfront Trails (board member, vice-president and president, 12 years.

1. What is the biggest issue facing Hawaii County, and what would you do about it?

Cost of living. Hawaii island’s district’s all have specific needs, but overall cost of living is on everyone’s mind. While there is no single piece of legislation that will ease this burden, there are several big bites we can take:

— Address the cost of housing. For 22 years, I have been an affordable housing advocate, producer and landlord. I am very familiar with the stumbling blocks that make housing more expensive for our residents. Some of the ways the county can fix this is by updating zoning; where allowed in our General Plan, make changes to the affordable rental law and incentivize mixed use development (like Downtown Hilo).

— Increase the reach of our sewer systems that will save homeowners money (cost of sewer vs cesspool conversion) and are more environmentally sound.

— Pass a Complete Streets ordinance; our roads will become more bicycle- and pedestrian-accessible, mass transit will become more accessible to more people, and we will see a decrease in common medical ailments due to lack of exercise and create transportation equity within our society.

These are but a few of the steps we can take to reduce the cost of living on Hawaii island.

2. Over tourism can degrade the environment, threaten biodiversity, contribute to wear and tear on infrastructure, generate traffic and disrupt neighborhoods. What do you think about the amount of tourism on the Big Island and how it’s managed?

Currently, we are approaching 2 million visitors a year on Hawaii island, yet very little has changed in the management of tourism since the 1990s, when there were just over 1 million visitors. We can look to the successes of other popular destinations with finite resources that have had to address overtourism.

One strategy that could be employed far more is the on-line management of public places. It is my experience that many tourists here on Hawaii island are surprised that so many public assets and resources are free, which begs the question: Why aren’t we capitalizing on this? By limiting the number of tourists allowed to enter our public parks, natural and cultural resources and charging them for parking or entry/use fees, we can spread tourists out and better manage our public assets to insure they are available for residents to enjoy as well. It’s a win-win that absolutely needs to happen.

I am a big supporter of home rule, and I would like the county to have more control over its public assets to ensure that the local community benefits from tourism, rather than people in Honolulu making choices for us we don’t want.

3. What needs to happen to relieve traffic congestion in and around Kailua-Kona and along the Puna-Keaau-Hilo corridor?

As the president of Hilo Bayfront Trails (HBFT), an advocate and close partner with PATH (People’s Advocacy Trails Hawaii), as well as a participant in the MALC (Mayor’s Active Living Council) process, I think you can guess which direction we should be going: Bike paths, multiuse paths and integrated public transit.

Right now, HBFT is collaborating with PATH and Mass Transit for Hawaii County to align a new section of multiuse trail with a state-owned parcel for a bus stop, Bikeshare rental (those blue bikes you can pick up and drop off conveniently around town), and transition to the Kilauea business corridor.

This type of partnership, where you can take a bus for a larger distance, then use Bikeshare (or your own bike on the bus racks) for the “final mile” are all made possible with our roads being more bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Puna would especially benefit from a separated multiuse path from Pahoa to Hilo: it’s fairly level and at 16 miles would take a biker about an hour (average speed). An e-bike or road bike would be substantially faster. Commuting from Pahoa into Hilo by car is not much faster!

4. The cost of living on Hawaii Island is rising rapidly. How are working and middle-class people expected to buy a house or pay the rent as well as take care of other expenses? And how can the county government help?

Currently, there is substantial regulatory overreach in our permitting system and ohana (accessory dwelling unit) adoption. These two changes will reduce building costs, maintain safety and allow for multigenerational living or rentals to help people meet their homeownership costs.

In addition, I would like to see reasonable updates to the zoning code, where allowed in our General Plan. I would also like to make changes to the affordable rental laws (commonly referred to as ‘Section 8’) to make it more attractive to landlords. Another strategy would be to incentivize mixed use development (like Downtown Hilo) where residential and business could co-exist.

Lastly, we desperately need to increase the reach of our sewer systems. This will save homeowners money (less expensive cost of sewer connection vs. cesspool conversion), is more environmentally sound, will curb urban sprawl by focusing density at our town cores, make mass transit more efficient, combat global warming by reducing endless car miles to ever-spreading subdivisions into our agricultural lands and environmentally sensitive/watershed areas.

5. What is your view on Mauna Kea? Is there a way to support astronomy but also respect cultural concerns and be environmentally sound?

I am a supporter of technology, science and related opportunities like astronomy. HB 2024 will deal our island a significant blow. The upcoming destabilization of the management of the mountain will once again play out, much like it did for 20-plus years when management by UH was essentially non-existent. I am very worried that without the guardrails and significant experience of UH (including all of its mistakes), the new entity, which has virtually no other body performing oversight, will be rudderless for some time to come.

It’s a travesty that our state’s long history of misrepresenting Hawaiians, Hawaiian culture and inequality in virtually every form, is being played out on the mountain. I do believe there was, and still is, room for everyone. But in today’s zero-sum state politics and weaponized social media, the moment may have passed.

With respect to environmental issues, the telescopes are subject to a high level of regulation and monitoring. The gravest environmental degradation of the mountain is occurring below the summit: thousands of acres of invasive gorse spreading unchecked and compete denuding of native vegetation by feral ungulates. We need to make hunting more accessible to manage the invasive pigs, sheep and goats.

 6. Do you feel the governor and Legislature appreciate the issues of Hawaii County, or are they too focused on Honolulu and Oahu? What would you do to change that?

I will work toward increasing home rule and the administration of our public assets. Our local public trusts could be served better by local boards and administration. This could be a triple win: for our people, for the land, and for the workers who manage them.

Because of Oahu’s larger population, it’s only natural that the governor and Legislature prioritize them. I believe that it’s in both the state and the county’s interest to have some assets turned over to the county. I will work with our Legislature and future governor to find these common goals.

7. Half of Hawaii’s cesspools are on the Big Island, some 49,300. Seepage from cesspools can make people sick, harm coral reefs and lead to a variety of ecological damage. By law, cesspools must be upgraded to septic systems by 2050. What can be done to help people who may not be able to afford the conversion?

As mentioned above, the expansion of our sewer system will actually save money for homeowners in those areas with access to an existing sewer system. Outside of our denser neighborhoods, I think qualifying low-income long-term loans, similar to Kona Wonderview subdivision which installed a public DWS system back in the early 2000’s via a Federal Rural Loan guarantee.

Regardless of the specific mechanism, we need to be certain that we don’t force people out of their homes just because they cannot afford the mandate.

8. Climate change is real and will force us to make tough decisions. What is the first thing Hawaii County should do to get in front of climate change rather than just reacting to it?

I think I’ve pointed out several climate-friendly options already, here are some additions:

— Reasonably increase density where our General Plan guides us to stop urban sprawl.

— Look at zoning with an eye to reduce bedroom communities and their dependance on goods, services and employment requiring a car.

— Pass the Complete Streets package to ensure bicycle and pedestrian access as we redevelop our roads.

— Increase our reach with public sewer, especially in high density areas where it makes economic and environmental sense.

— Ensure our shoreline development plans are consistent with sea level rise, based on science.

— Increase local food production by allowing small groceries in neighborhoods to carry local products. The model of the plantation camp (where you had services within a neighborhood) worked well for generations – both here and in older neighborhoods on Oahu and the mainland. Having low-impact pocket markets will increase the ability of small farmers to sell their goods to our residents, offsetting shipped-in goods.

9. Should the Hu Honua biomass energy plant be allowed to start operating? Why or why not?

At this juncture, the Hawaii Supreme court and the PUC have ruled against Honua Ola. To my knowledge the Hawaii County Council has little say over their operation, other than permits. That being said, back in 1998 when the Mauna Kea sugar lands were purchased and eucalyptus trees were planted, at the time they said it was for a veneer industry. Veneer is the peeling of logs to make plywood.

As a builder, I don’t know what hurdles there would be to get eucalyptus certified as an accepted plywood product and meet building code. I do think it has a much better chance being used as an OSB (oriented strand board) product where chips are laminated together for a very stable plyboard. LP Smart Panel is a common example of this that is used extensively in Hawaii.

I would love to see Honua Ola used for a value-added industry like this. They could burn slash for their own energy consumption and make OSB ply for the local market and beyond.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii County. Be innovative, but be specific.

Immediately:

Significantly greater reach of high-speed internet. Whether by fiber optic cables (traditional) or satellite (emerging). This was a significant divide during the pandemic, and we need to focus on this.

To integrate into our county work culture:

Hawaii County should look to crowd-sourcing ideas, critiques and tasks from its citizenry of potential volunteers. The wall between government and the people needs to be increasingly porous and two-way. Young people can lead the way on this, as they are used to navigating many decentralized applications, as digital natives. Which will be important as Gen Z becomes a part of our workforce and eventually leads the way into a technology-dense world ahead.

The Saddle Road project and Hilo Bayfront Trails are two examples of significant public input resulting in results people love!

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