Property owners and government officials are stuck in a continued state of “confusion, conflicting interpretations and complex layers of administration.”

Maui County was home to just 43,000 people in 1960 when county officials enacted the first comprehensive zoning laws to guide where and how the community would grow in the years to come.

Maui County locator map

More than six decades later, the islands have transformed and so have the needs of the 164,000 residents now living on Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

But the foundation of the county’s zoning laws has remain unchanged, making it difficult for developers, residents and even county officials to chart a thoughtful path forward.

“The zoning code is outdated and doesn’t meet the needs of the community as it is right now,” said Hawaii Community Lending Executive Director Jeff Gilbreath, who helped develop a county plan to boost affordable housing. “And without clarity, it can be a barrier to achieving the affordability that Maui County so desperately needs.”

Residents across Maui’s political spectrum say the county’s old zoning code is a barrier to affordable housing and walkable communities. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Zoning lays the groundwork for communities, shaping where people live, work and play. The laws dictate where homes and apartments can go and whether neighborhoods are within walking distance to shops, schools, grocery stores and offices. They protect important farmland and set limits on how far things like factories or sewage treatment plants need to be from where families reside.

But some of Maui’s zoning laws were put into place before statehood, including a type of zoning that was designed to be temporary, called “interim zoning.” Those laws haven’t been comprehensively revamped since then, despite generations of dramatic changes in the islands.

Today, when zoning doesn’t match up with what the community needs, it can cause big problems. The laws have posed barriers to all sorts of new development, ranging from a cutting-edge sea turtle hospital to the planning of neighborhoods reminiscent of Maui’s old towns where residents can walk from their homes to work. 

Maui County knows an update is long overdue. In 2017, it hired the consultant Orion Planning + Design for $110,000 to audit the zoning code, which found that it needed a complete overhaul. In 2019, the government put $634,000 toward keeping the consultant on board to give the old laws and zoning map a rewrite, a massive project expected to last several years. 

The process has been slow going, and now isn’t expected to be finished until 2026, according to the project’s website. The consultant declined to comment, saying it was told to refer all media inquiries to Maui County. The county didn’t respond to multiple messages requesting comment on the status of the project.

The latest timeline of the county’s zoning overhaul. (Screenshot/T19rewrite.org/2023)

Confusion And Conflicting Interpretations

The zoning update couldn’t come soon enough for property owners and government officials who have to deal with the code. 

William Spence, who served as Maui County planning director from 2011 to 2018, is acutely aware of the challenges. He advocated for the 2018 audit, which found that a patchwork of adjustments to the old laws over the decades have only led to “confusion, conflicting interpretations and complex layers of administration.”

The audit team discovered more than 600 pages of rules that government officials are supposed to use to interpret the code because it can be so perplexing as written. That was one of the biggest surprises when Spence became director of the planning department in 2011. He was told there were three large binders — each up to 3 inches thick — that were filled with past officials’ analyses of Maui’s zoning laws. 

“I even questioned if those things were even legally defensible because they could be the opinion of a planning director from 15 years ago,” Spence said. “That creates problems, and we spent just huge amounts of time interpreting this code.”

The 2018 audit found that Maui’s current zoning is autocentric and doesn’t meet the community’s needs by providing a wide range of housing types, like tiny homes, duplexes, triplexes and quadriplexes. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Today, Spence works as a consultant helping property owners figure out how to navigate the bureaucracy. One of his most exciting projects at the moment is paving the way for a state-of-the-art marine conservation and research center in Maalaea. It would be the first facility of its kind in Hawaii.

The four-story center run by the nonprofit Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute would house the islands’ only sea turtle hospital, one of four land-based coral nurseries in the entire country, spaces for public educational classrooms and dorms to welcome visiting scientists from across the world.

Spence quickly realized there was a problem. The county zoning maps dictating what could be built in the area were “a mess.” The vacant quarter-acre parcel where the center would be built, next to Maalaea’s world-famous aquarium, was chopped up into three different zoning types. One sliver had no zoning at all. 

Changing old zoning to pave the way for new development is a lengthy process that at best can take a year or two, but at worst can take five years or longer and end up killing projects. 

So Spence and the Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute looked for some extra help to speed things up. Last year, in an effort spearheaded by then-Maui County Council member Kelly King, the council officially urged the county planning department to change the zoning in Maalaea where the center could be built, possibly shaving years off the process. If all goes to plan, Spence said the zoning problems could be solved by the end of this year.

“I don’t even know how they built the Maui Ocean Center with the zoning map like that,” Spence said, referring to the aquarium.

In Maalaea, the community plan is more current and reflects how residents want to see their community develop. The zoning, however, hasn’t been updated to match that. (Screenshot/Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute/2023)

Others aren’t so lucky. The current process to rezone properties is often mired with delays. At the same time, Maui’s outdated zoning has in some cases favored sprawling subdivisions with single-family homes, making it difficult — or even impossible — for developers to design communities in some parts of Maui where families can live in a range of housing types including tiny homes, apartments and duplexes.

Hawaiian Community Assets, a consultant hired by the county for $300,000 to create a plan to spur the construction of 5,000 affordable homes, wrote that updating the zoning code should be the No. 1 policy priority for government officials wanting to lower the cost of living in a community where the typical home price tops $1.2 million. 

Lawrence Carnicelli, an executive with Alaula Builders, which develops affordable homes, said that developers often run into problems when the old zoning doesn’t match up with the state’s current land-use designations or the county’s islandwide and community plans, which can add years to developers’ timelines and hundreds of thousands of dollars to project costs.

This also increases the risk that factors outside the local government’s control can threaten a project or residents’ ability to afford their homes — like a jump in building material costs, labor shortages or a rise in interest rates.

Right now, for example, Carnicelli’s company is working on a for-sale development in Central Maui where homes will be sold at hundreds of thousands of dollars less than market prices. But he’s having to come to terms with the fact that costs could run millions of dollars more than when he first started trying to get the project approved more than three years ago.

“We’re at a place where we need to start making some policy decisions,” he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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