Concerns were raised that planning department staff would be given even more discretion over reducing or waiving fines.

The Maui Planning Commission will vote again Tuesday on rules that govern development and construction projects along Maui’s coastlines after the county failed to include some written testimony on the matter prior to decision making.

Maui County locator map

The fresh vote comes after Hawaii’s Office of Information Practices, which oversees public information and open meeting rules, looked into a complaint from a former county planning employee whose testimony hadn’t been sent to the planning commission before the March 28 final vote. 

The new planning rules dictate how far new construction must be from the shoreline. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

Johann Lall, who at the time worked as a mapping and data analyst for Maui’s planning department, had raised concerns about how the new rules would give the department’s staff even more discretion to waive or reduce fines by up to $50,000 without needing the planning commission’s approval. He wrote that would further continue the “normalization of unethical acts in the department.”

In the complaint to the state agency, Lall also questioned whether the working group that helped craft the new planning rules had been following the state’s open meeting laws.

“When a member of the public complains to OIP that a board’s action was not in compliance with the Sunshine Law, the board has the burden to justify to OIP any departure from the law’s general requirement of openness,” a state attorney wrote to the Maui Planning Commission in response to Lall’s complaint.

Maui County did not respond to an email or phone call requesting comment. 

The proposed changes aim to better protect Maui’s coastlines from climate change by discouraging new development in areas that could be flooded in the future if seas rise by 3.2 feet. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

But the concerns over the process come as other residents have questioned the makeup of the Maui Planning Commission itself. Last year, voters passed a charter amendment that says the island’s planning commission must have one member from each of Maui’s seven County Council residency areas

The Maui County Charter – which is the document that serves as the local government’s constitution – has been updated to reflect the changes, but the Maui Planning Commission currently doesn’t have any members from South Maui or Kahului.

“I urge the county to take the required corrective action so as not to jeopardize all of the Maui Planning Commission’s hard work and decisions,” Dick Mayer, a former planning commission member, wrote to county officials. 

It’s unclear if and when officials plan to make changes to the commission’s makeup.

For now, the commission will continue meeting and vetting important planning changes that will shape Maui residents’ future. During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners will revisit the rules that are supposed to “preserve, protect and, where possible, restore” coastlines and beaches. 

Maui’s original rules were created in the 1970s and dictate development in what’s known as the special management area, which falls under additional protection because it’s along the shoreline. The jurisdiction generally extends mauka from the coast to the nearest highway.

Royal Kahana Maui
For decades, Maui County allowed development that was too close to the shoreline, which over the years eroded the island’s beaches. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022)

Proponents of the new rules say that the changes will ease some of the permitting requirements, reducing backlog and paperwork in the county’s understaffed planning department while making it easier on homeowners. The changes allow property owners to more quickly tackle some repairs or projects that have “minimal to no environmental impact” and cost less than $500,000 over the course of two years, according to a county news release published after the previous vote in March.

Others residents, however, worry that the changes will bring less scrutiny over projects that might threaten the island’s beaches, some of which have vanished in recent decades because of coastal erosion exacerbated by developers constructing sea walls and buildings too close to the shoreline.

“We need more transparency and accountability, not less,” Lall, who recently left the county to work as a researcher for the University of Hawaii, wrote to the planning commission in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.

If adopted Tuesday, it’s unclear exactly when the new rules would take effect. The county plans to comprehensively update the rules once every decade.

Read Lall’s complaint and the Office of Information Practices’ response below.

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

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