Updated: The bill was recommitted to conference committee Thursday, effectively killing it.

Rep. Troy Hashimoto and Sen. Lorraine Inouye have been in damage control after pushback on a land-use bill that was drastically changed and back loaded during conference committee.

The draft legislation, House Bill 676, triggered disquiet when it gave inordinate powers to Hawaii’s counties to circumvent Land Use Commission approval for changing land designations for parcels between 15 and 100 acres to expedite affordable housing projects. 

The concern was the bill could have resulted in the haphazard conversion of agricultural and conservation lands into affordable housing developments, potentially encouraging developers and other private interests to influence counties and council members in their decisions.

The last-minute crush of Conference Committee proceedings last week has been blamed for the alarming language that found its way into House Bill 676. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Hashimoto and Inouye both tabled amendments Tuesday in their bid to quell concerns over the bill’s intent, and the fact a major change was made without the chance for public input. 

Inouye and Hashimoto told their fellow lawmakers that “it was never the intent to make this process less transparent.”

The bill faced a tough run in the Legislature and faced significant pushback, with public testimony citing the importance of the LUC’s role in deciding the fate of agricultural land, cultural resources and mitigating potential for environmental impacts. 

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In its original form the bill empowered counties to make district boundary amendments without LUC approval for tracts of county-owned lands over 15 acres, and by the time it reached conference committee, a cap of 30 acres was placed on the bill along with other requirements intended to ensure responsible redistricting.  

But during conference committee, led by Hashimoto and Inouye, the cap was lifted to 100 acres and a new section was added, rendering moot the requirements that tasked counties with ensuring the projects dedicated at least 75% of the redistricted land to affordable housing and adopted pre-conversion processes akin to the LUC’s. 

Rep Troy Hashimoto at the NVMC blessing
Rep. Troy Hashimoto wants the legislation to act as a test for counties, so they can take ownership of Hawaii’s housing issue. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022)

This would have potentially led to loose and widespread redistricting of county owned lands according to former Maui Planning Commission member Dick Mayer and former LUC Chair, Jonathan Likeke Scheuer

HB 676 took on similar language to now-dead companion bills targeting affordable housing Hashimoto and Inouye introduced this year for up to 100 acre parcels of land.

Hashimoto, who introduced HB 676, puts the late changes down to a drafting error, one made during Friday’s legislative time crunch, when lawmakers rallied to hear bills before their conference committee deadline

It definitely wasn’t the intent to make a clandestine change to the law, Hashimoto said in an interview. 

Districting, Redistricting, Restricted Or Unrestrictive? 

Arguments for and against the existence of LUC crop up often, with the nine-member commission taking blame for a lack of affordable housing across the state due to the petitioning process which some see as overly burdensome. 

The LUC’s voluntary members – appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate – are charged with scrutinizing requests to convert conservation or agricultural land into rural or urban designations, in accordance with the state Land Use Law.

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer.
Former Land Use Commission Chair Jonathan Likeke Scheuer has raised concerns about how House Bill 676 could influence the future of Hawaii’s land usage. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Scheuer says draft legislation intended to circumvent LUC powers are common, introduced at the Legislature every year and shot down due to public pushback. 

But if lawmakers wanted to lay a better foundation for counties to build more housing then far less regulation is needed, according to the policy think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

Grassroot’s director of policy Malia Hill says removing LUC’s oversight and adding eight other requirements renders the HB 676 flimsy at best.

“Basically what they’ve created is ‘government can build houses’,” Hill said in an interview.

Hashimoto and Inouye’s dead companion bills would have been preferable, according to Hill, but what has resulted is something everyone appears unhappy with.

“Sometimes it’s the sign of a good bill. In this case I think it’s the sign of a bill that won’t do very much,” Hill said in an interview. 

Giving The Counties Ownership

Mayer says the amendments made during conference committee resulted in a piece of “nasty legislation” and questions whether it was actually a breach of the Hawaii House of Representatives’ own rules, because it was a substantial change in the draft law. 

Mayer says he is doubtful the counties have it in them to be able to execute the task anyway, as Maui County staff are both underpowered and lack the knowhow to advise its leadership or planning commission on redistricting matters. 

Scheuer’s main concern is that when LUC is not involved, there is a potential for outside meddling.

Counties are not well equipped to decide land designation, according to the former Maui Planning Commission chair.
(Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

“Developers can donate to the campaigns of county council members. They can’t donate to the Land Use Commission members,” Scheuer said in an interview. “Even if the land is owned by the county and it’s for affordable housing, it’s not that there’s no money to be made.”

And though there are provisions in the legislation that call for “all impacts” to be considered – that the LUC would weigh – it is not hard to tailor studies and assessments to meet certain interests.  

“You’re really having the fox watch the henhouse here,” Scheuer said. 

Seven senators voted against the amendments made to HB 676 on Tuesday, two throwing their support behind Maui Sen. Angus McKelvey, who raised concerns over transparency. 

Fellow Maui Sen. Lynn DeCoite supported McKelvey’s statements, saying that while she supported affordable housing projects, the battle to preserve agricultural lands underscores the importance of keeping the LUC involved. 

UPDATED: The House and Senate both voted to recommit House Bill 676 to conference committee on the last day of the 2023 Legislative Session.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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