Council members and neighborhood board chairs are voicing concerns over the lack of public input in the process.

Gov. Josh Green’s sweeping emergency proclamation suspending planning restrictions to pave the way for 50,000 new housing units is stirring hope but also raising anxiety among many elected officials on Oahu.

More than a dozen elected officials contacted for comment said that although they applaud the governor’s ambitious effort to boost the island’s housing stock, the scope of the proclamation and its possible negative consequences was making them uneasy.

Rich Turbin, chair of the Waialae-Kahala Neighborhood Board for almost 40 years, who has watched hundreds of development projects unfold over the decades, said he found the action by government fiat “definitely troubling.”

“I’m a fan of Josh Green, I know his heart is in the right place,” Turbin said. “He had the grounds to make an emergency proclamation, but there are reasons to say it’s gone too far toward eliminating public scrutiny.”

Home being built near the 3400 block on Manoa Road. with permits visible.
The governor’s housing proclamation is intended to fast-track new home construction and particularly high density housing. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Kathleen Pahinui, chair of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, echoed Turbin’s concerns.

“I know why he did it,” Pahinui said. “His intentions absolutely are in the right place, but the devil is in the details. How will this be implemented? I can see the potential for misuse.”

Through proclamation rather than legislation, Gov. Green has given a 22-member working group, mostly comprised of state officials, the power to approve projects that would create or replace existing housing and would require county governments to exempt these developments from fees and permit scrutiny. He has also restricted historic preservation reviews, excluding cases involving human remains.

Green’s proclamation also removes administrative review of projects by state or county commissions or boards and drops the 45-day city permit review process for approval of what is known as 201H housing projects, with state officials saying 45 days is too long. Instead, 201H projects approved by the state will be approved by the county planning department.

The proclamation comes at a time that state-backed 201H projects, including the controversial 43-story Kuilei Place project on Kapiolani Boulevard, have attracted vocal criticism. The proclamation would make it happen even faster.

At a press conference, the governor said that extraordinary action must be taken because of the seriousness of the situation and because community groups have opposed much-needed housing.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who will hold a seat on the state working group, has voiced his strong support for the governor’s unusual initiative which both men say is needed to help solve the state’s housing affordability crisis.

Council Still Analyzing Implications

Honolulu City Council members said they were studying the proclamation to understand the full implications of the governor’s action in suspending a raft of land-use regulations normally administered by the city council.

The Honolulu City Council, shown here on inauguration day, is reviewing the implications of Gov. Josh Green’s housing proclamation, which would strip them of the right to review some kinds of development projects. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Council Chair Tommy Waters said in a statement that while he was fully supportive of the need to produce more housing and remains “cautiously optimistic” about the governor’s effort to think “outside the box,” he has concerns that many officials “who have a responsibility to their individual communities are noticeably absent from the governor’s working group.”

He said the community’s voice could be diminished, and that public input could be lost.

Council member Val Okimoto said she and her team were still analyzing how the initiative would impact the city. “We know we are short affordable homes on Oahu and I remain hopeful that the governor and his administration are doing their due diligence on this important issue.”

Other council members were enthusiastic, citing some of the compelling statistics cited by the governor at a press conference Monday where he unveiled the details of the proclamation.

“It is not a cure-all, but I think it is responsive to the reality we are facing,” Council member Matt Weyer said in an email. “With 14,500 residents leaving the state every year, or one local person leaving per 36 minutes, we cannot sit back and allow our community and workforce to be depleted.”

Neighborhood Boards Sidelined

Some members of the neighborhood boards, which are frequently at loggerheads with developers, said the proclamation had put them on high alert. Although some said they think development gets snarled in excessive red tape at times, the proclamation diminishes their power by making it more difficult for them to oppose projects that would substantially change the neighborhoods where they live.

Winston Welch, president of the Outdoor Circle and chair of the Diamond Head-Kapuhulu-St. Louis Heights Neighborhood Board, said he found it alarming that the governor would reduce regulation of development, when in his view, regulation of development is already too weak in Honolulu.

Welch called the proclamation an “evisceration of guidelines in place for decades.”

He also thinks the proclamation sets a bad legal precedent.

McGrew Point Pearl Harbor Aiea Pearl City Pearlridge HART rail aerial1.
Pearl City is one area where new high-rise projects have been proposed and could come on line faster because of the proclamation. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

“Isn’t it a bad idea  to suspend laws?,” he said. “Isn’t that what they do in places where we don’t have robust democracies?”

In Pearl City, neighborhood residents have fought to maintain the 60-foot building height enshrined in the city zoning code but projects as high as 400 feet have been proposed for the area. Pearl City Neighborhood Board Chairman Larry Veray said area residents have tried to draw “a line in the sand” to block these very tall high rises. The board established by the governor could possibly sweep away that limitation, Veray said.

“If they go over 60 feet, the people will object but the state and the city will say ‘Bite the bullet; we’re building those homes,'” Veray said. “We don’t want 200- and 400-foot towers.”

Some said that the state working group could make errors that could be hard or impossible to fix later.

Louis Erteschick, vice chair of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, said he likes Green personally and supports the expansion of affordable housing, but that in his experience, “when developers talk about streamlining rules that’s code for bulldozing the regulations.”

Pahinui, from the North Shore, said real estate developers make a lot of promises when they are proposing projects but once construction is underway, they come back and say the affordable housing “didn’t pencil out.” There is the potential for this happening if many projects are approved but not monitored for compliance later.

“In every community we have got to be watching, watching what is going on,” she said.

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