Kate Blystone takes over a department reeling with low morale, a backlog of permits, a staffing shortage and other issues while dealing with the fire recovery.

The Maui County Council on Tuesday confirmed Kate Blystone as planning director, a position that will play a key role in determining how Lahaina and Upcountry rebuilds from the Aug. 8 fires that destroyed more than 2,200 structures and displaced thousands of people during a housing crisis.

Blystone’s 20 years of experience includes working for Maui County for more than three years as a senior planner before leaving to be a Maui-based project manager for Bowers & Kubota Consulting. While there, she worked on the Hawaii Community Foundation’s House Maui Initiative, which launched in late 2020 with goals that included dismantling barriers within government systems to create equitable and affordable housing options.

Mayor Richard Bissen, who appointed the 42-year-old Blystone, said in addition to her qualifications and experience she had the “courage” to take the job.

“I can’t think of a more contentious position,” he said, especially over the past decade.

Kate Blystone is flanked by her supporters, Maui Mayor Richard Bisssen, left, and Josiah Nishita, head of the new Office of Recovery, during her confirmation before the County Council. (Cammy Clark/Civil Beat/2024)

Blystone told the council that she knows what she is getting herself into.

“I watched smart, hardworking people that I love, respect and admire get chewed up and spit out by this job again and again here and on the continent,” she said. “We are all being called to rise up in this moment.”

She takes over the 84-person department at a time when there is low morale, 22 vacancies, major backlogs in permitting, zoning enforcement issues, the ongoing rewrite of Title 19 that deals with zoning in the County Code, and an affordable housing shortage exacerbated by the fires.

Many of these issues came to light in a 2022 third-party audit of the planning department that included overall lack of confidence in then-Planning Director Michele McLean.

Josiah Nishita, who heads the county’s new Office of Recovery, said when he ran Blystone’s name past the existing planning department staff the one word that summarized how they felt was “relieved.”

“That speaks a lot to just her status within the department, their trust and faith in her,” he said.

Kim Willenbrink, who had worked with Blystone in the county Planning Department, told the council in her testimony that she would be “a terrific breath of fresh air” and bring a wealth of internal knowledge to the department “at a time when institutional knowledge is leaving.”

Blystone has been serving as acting planning director since Jan. 22. With her confirmation, she officially replaces Kathleen Ross Aoki, who retired Dec. 31 after losing her home in the Lahaina fire months earlier.

Deputy Planning Director Garrett Smith also resigned as of Jan. 31. The county is in the process of hiring a deputy planning director.

Among Blystone’s experience that proponents say will serve her well for the next few years is her recent work with the Hawaii Community Foundation on various aspects of the fires’ emergency and interim recovery efforts. Supporters also pointed to her leadership during the first year of updating the South Maui Community Plan that is still in progress and her long-range planning work on the update of the 178-page West Maui Community Plan.

“She was able to wrangle our small alakai (leader) group and then she was able to herd the cats in the larger community workshops with intelligence, great empathy and this preternatural intuitive ability to make complex concepts easy to understand for everyone,” Jen Mathers said in her testimony, speaking about the work on the West Maui plan. “She can diffuse explosive situations. She’s had to talk me down a few times.”

Mathers described Blystone as a “fierce, capable professional.”

“Don’t let her kindness and aloha fool you into thinking she’s going to let you walk all over her,” Mathers said. “The fact that Kate is ready and willing to take up this enormous task, which will entail Herculean lifts for years, especially in Lahaina, gives me hope for our future.”

Maui's new planning director, Kate Blystone, will play a major role in the rebuilding of Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
Maui’s new planning director, Kate Blystone, will play a major role in the rebuilding of Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

Blystone said she is an advocate for smart growth, for protecting agricultural land and natural resources and for building vibrant, livable communities.

“It’s really important that once the community says this is where we want to grow, that we lay the groundwork for that,” she said.

Micah Kane, executive director of the Hawaii Community Foundation, laughed when he was asked in an interview if he stole Blystone from Bowers & Kubota. “I told her: ‘You get what we are trying to do (with the House Maui Initiative). You want to do this full time? Let’s go.’”

Blystone was confirmed 8-1, with council member Tasha Kama, chair of the Housing and Land Use Committee, voting no over concerns about Blystone’s lack of experience dealing with a large county budget or running a big county department.

Council member Yuki Lei Sugimura voted yes but with reservations. She is concerned Blystone, who grew up in Washington, has only lived on Maui since 2018.

“Six years is not very long, and we are part of a very huge transition in our county now,” Sugimura said.

Blystone said she had a college roommate who was born and raised on Maui, and for 10 years prior to moving to Hawaii took Hawaiian language lessons and read books about the state and its culture so she would “not feel like an outsider.”

On Thursday, the council’s Water and Infrastructure Committee will discuss an emergency permitting bill to expedite rebuilding of about 1,100 residential homes, businesses and public facilities in Lahaina and Upcountry. It is one of likely many such proposed amendments that Blystone will have to implement if passed.

Council Chair Alice Lee told Blystone she hopes the focus is put on streamlining the permitting system, the processes and simplifying it all for the public.

“In order to build a house nowadays you have to hire a consultant because it’s very difficult trying to maneuver through all the various mazes that all of us are responsible for creating,” Lee said.

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

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