Maui County Needs Zoning Reform Now - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Sterling Higa

Sterling Higa serves as executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a movement creating opportunities for Hawaii’s next generation by ending the workforce housing shortage. He is a member of Gov. Josh Green’s Building Beyond Barriers Working Group.

It’s the basic policy of land use, dictating what can be built, and where. But the current code is outdated.

In 1960, Maui County adopted its zoning code, Title 19. Title 19 has not been revised since then. Zoning codes should receive a comprehensive update every 10 years, so Maui’s code is 53 years overdue for revision.

Maui’s zoning code was written during the postwar infatuation with car-dependent suburbs. Unsurprisingly, Maui’s development since 1960 has taken the form of sprawling suburbs.

Walkable communities? Not so much. Environmental sustainability? Not really. Affordable housing? Nervous laughter.

Maui County must reform its zoning code. If the zoning code is not updated, Maui County will perpetuate its affordable housing crisis. Worse, it will fail to rehouse families that lost their homes in the recent fires.

A contractor is currently preparing a revision, and they’re scheduled to finish in 2026. Three years is a long time to wait, so Mayor Richard Bissen’s administration should speed up the process.

In the interim, the county should adopt the contractor’s draft hybrid code as a guide for rebuilding. And it should enact surgical reforms to correct the worst provisions in the current code.

We Know Maui’s Zoning Code Stinks

In 2016, Maui County hired Orion Planning and Design to conduct an audit of Title 19, Maui’s Zoning Code. In March 2018, the audit was released. The audit is a scathing review of the code coupled with recommendations for improvement.

The audit notes that Maui’s zoning code produces car-centric places that are not complete communities.

This checks out. Drive out from Kahului Airport, and you emerge into a landscape indistinguishable from a California suburb, dotted with big-box stores like Walmart and Target. Kahului was nicknamed “Dream City,” and it’s true to the postwar American Dream: a sprawling, car-dependent suburb.

Wailuku was developed before 1960, before zoning requirements were changed — and not for the better (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

It’s not a coincidence that the towns worth visiting on Maui were all developed before 1960: Hana, Makawao, Paia, Wailuku, and Lahaina could not be built with today’s zoning and building codes. Kihei’s beachfront luxury resorts are nice; no one visits for its exquisite strip malls.

The audit argues against single-use residential zoning and preferences for detached single-family homes.

“A greater range of housing types is being used in communities across the country to expand housing diversity and affordable options,” notes Orion. “Maui County should consider expanding the types of housing permitted in residential and mixed-use districts such as row houses, courtyard houses, duplexes, triplexes, quadriplexes, accessory dwelling units, and tiny houses.”

Maui County took the feedback to heart, and in July 2019 the county contracted Orion Planning and Design to rewrite and update Title 19. But that process is scheduled to finish in 2026. So any rebuild in the next three years is likely to occur under current zoning which is designed to produce unaffordable, unsustainable sprawl.

One opportunity for the mayor’s administration is to read the 2018 audit and task a single leader with enacting its recommendations.

That leader can work with the Planning Department, Orion Planning and Design, the Maui County Council, and the Planning Commissions to adopt the draft code ahead of schedule.

And that leader can identify provisions in the current code that make it difficult to build affordable housing and propose targeted legislation to reform the current code until the county adopts the new code.

For example, the council should remove minimum parking requirements, reduce minimum lot sizes, and lift limits on the number of accessory dwelling units permitted by right. More housing types should be permitted by right, and pre-approved plans should be used during rebuilding.

Permitting Also A Problem

Zoning reform won’t solve all Maui County’s problems. It will also need to speed up permitting. Maui County’s slow permitting is an issue shared with Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

The Maui County Council should consider a “no need permit” bill like Honolulu’s Bill 56. Honolulu’s Mayor signed Bill 56 into law in June this year. Bill 56 exempts minor improvements and repairs from pulling a permit.

The towns worth visiting on Maui were all developed before 1960.

This includes fences, retaining walls, and walkways. It also includes interior repairs that don’t involve electrical, plumbing, or mechanical installations. This includes cabinets, countertops, and floors.

Maui County should assess data on permits issued in the last 10 years and remove permit requirements for work that doesn’t affect health and safety. A “no need permit” bill would free up personnel to focus on the work of permitting thousands of new homes.

Absent zoning and permitting reform, the people of Maui County should prepare for more unaffordable, unsustainable sprawl. And we should not be surprised if the rebuild of Lahaina pushes out local families and changes the character of that historic town.

The system is working exactly as designed. But we, the people, can change it.

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About the Author

Sterling Higa

Sterling Higa serves as executive director of Housing Hawaii’s Future, a movement creating opportunities for Hawaii’s next generation by ending the workforce housing shortage. He is a member of Gov. Josh Green’s Building Beyond Barriers Working Group.

Latest Comments (0)

Excellent piece. How about TOD's? I could see a new "Front Street" off the water, with shops and restaurants on ground level and condos or apartments above. Revamped and properly laid out streets can reduce traffic, maximize ingress and egress, and make a town a town.While my thoughts are not popular with some, I firmly believe that the "old" Front Street cannot be rebuilt. It was a jumbled, haphazard, out of code mess in so many ways and buildings. The seawall buildings were already being eroded and impacted by the rising sea levels. Do concrete pavers the whole stretch and make it into a pedestrian boulevard/park/mall. Put up kiosks with history and photos from Lahaina's Ali'i days to now. Like at the smokestack, MACC, and 'Iao Theater, allow people to purchase pavers with names inscribed. It can become a living piece of history. My family has pavers/plaques at all three and I would love to add one in Lahaina someday.

MauiLolo · 3 weeks ago

Sterling hit the nail on the head again! There are many rules in government that do not make any sense, including the current zoning code. Sometimes, these rules make people’s lives more difficult and create unnecessary burden. Each place is unique, and rules should be change to adapt to the situation if the reasoning is correct. Otherwise, we get corruption and poor outcomes, often health related down the road. Let's do the right thing for the benefit of the greater good. Thanks again for the awesome piece, Sterling.

MK1309 · 3 weeks ago

Fantastic opinion piece--well-written, constructive, and specific. Let's each do what we can to assure our Maui County officeholders read it and heed it.

kula · 3 weeks ago

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