Some Honolulu Building Permit Applicants Sailed Through Despite Long Waits For Most
A Civil Beat analysis raises questions about the fairness of wide disparities in how fast permits get approved. Bribery, political influence, people skills and other factors help determine a permit application's speed.
The two permit applications had a lot in common.
Submitted in 2019, both were set to become 2,400-square-foot single-family homes that needed electrical hookups, plumbing work and solar panels.
Each was estimated to cost about $400,000. And the properties were located just 3 miles apart, one in Kaimuki and one in Palolo.
A key difference was who submitted them to the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting, known as DPP.
Structural Hawaii submitted the Palolo plans in January. Architect Bill Wong submitted the other in October. The former waited for DPP’s blessing to build for more than 10 months. Wong got the OK within seven days.
“Seven days? At that time, I probably couldn’t get a fence permitted in seven days,” said Structural Hawaii CEO Jeoffrey Cudiamat. “That is so unfair. That is crazy.”
The contrasting outcomes illustrate the extreme disparities that have existed for years in DPP’s review time. How fast a permit moves in Honolulu depends on several factors, and one of them seems to be who is applying for it, according to an analysis of a decade’s worth of permitting data by Civil Beat.
In the rat race of Honolulu permitting, the data shows certain applicants tend to move faster – sometimes much faster – than others in line for permits, even when the type and scope of work is the same.
While DPP is notorious for contributing to some of the slowest permitting times in the nation, the data shows a wide variation within that. Certain applicants’ projects have sailed through the process in days or weeks while others languish for months or even years. A small group of applicants has gotten their work approved in half the average time of their competition, according to the data.
The disparities, long felt by those who interact with DPP, breed suspicion of special treatment.
“Those who are connected can get their work through,” said Jeffrey Durham, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors Hawaii. “It’s who you know.”
Indeed, Wong has been among Honolulu’s speediest permit applicants for years, the data shows. The architect is now headed to prison for paying off DPP workers for years to the tune of over $100,000. Wong apparently had a long-running deal with former chief building inspector, Wayne Inouye, who is now serving a five-year prison sentence.
Kiyoshi Toi, another architect charged with trying to bribe the city, also has a record of relative speed, according to the data. For new builds involving electrical, plumbing and solar work, he got his projects OK’d in less than half the average time of similar projects submitted by others in the same time period, Civil Beat’s analysis shows.
Prosecutors say Toi, 89, was caught on camera last year trying to slip a “wad of cash” to a plans examiner under the guise of a handshake. Toi’s lawyer Leighton Lee told Civil Beat it was just a $20 gesture of “appreciation.” Toi is awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, there were other applicants in the last 10 years whose paperwork moved even faster.
Speedy approval is a relative term. Civil Beat compared the review time with the average for each category, from 2012 through 2022. Even projects that were permitted quickly relative to their competitors in Honolulu often had to wait much longer than would be the norm in many places on the mainland.
The data identifies who moved faster than average – not why. Rapid approvals are not in themselves evidence, much less proof, of bribery or corruption. According to local construction industry experts, the quality of the building plans, the rapport the applicant builds with the plans examiner and the frequency of the applicants’ follow-up all play a role.
But the disparities demonstrate that permits in Honolulu have not necessarily been approved on a first-come, first-served basis. Cudiamat of Structural Hawaii said that needs to change.
“The system just needs to be more fair,” he said.
For those who have the wait, like Susan and Alan Chang, the delays are emotionally and financially draining.
The Changs had hoped to host a family reunion this summer. They planned to invite their children and grandchildren from the mainland to stay at their newly renovated Aiea home. But as of August, the Changs’ house was still a construction zone.
Piles of dirt sat in garbage bags in the would-be kitchen, and there was a hole in the ground where the bathtub should be. Meanwhile, the expenses for materials and labor had gone up by $18,000, and the couple had lost track of how much they were paying a warehouse to store the appliances they bought last year.
The couple had renovated a property in Arizona before, and getting a permit there took only a few weeks, Susan Chang said.
In Honolulu, it took a year.
“One of the designers we worked with said we didn’t give them enough manapua,” Alan Chang said.
Honolulu permitting director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna said the data is not proof of preferential treatment. Nevertheless, in an interview, she said her department will be reviewing Civil Beat’s findings and looking for signs of inappropriately reviewed plans.
She noted that many factors can influence how fast an application moves. Those include the time the application spends in the hands of those outside DPP, including the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, the Honolulu Fire Department and the Department of Health, as well as the applicants themselves who may take their time responding to comments on their plans.
The department also said the data itself is likely flawed. Employees have entered information into its system throughout the years inconsistently and “without much quality control.” DPP is now working on standard operating procedures to improve data entry practices but cautioned that the data collected in the past and shared with the public on the county’s website could be incomplete. Nevertheless, DPP did not take issue with Civil Beat’s methodology, and Takeuchi Apuna said it’s true that there are often wide disparities in permitting speed, even for projects of similar size and scope.
Under Takeuchi Apuna’s leadership, she said the department has been vigilant about investigating allegations of favorable treatment. Her office is also in the process of procuring new software that will make permits easier to track and make suspicious activity easier to flag.
“We’re going to do things differently,” she said. “It’s supposed to be first in, first out. That is our general policy.”
Who Are Honolulu’s Speediest Permit Applicants?
Several applicants were among those who moved the fastest across multiple categories analyzed by Civil Beat.
Wong was one of them, logging quicker than average review times in two of the four categories.
Consider the case of four properties – in Waikiki, Kahala, Waipahu and Kapalama.
All of them were new buildings with electrical, plumbing and solar components. All of them had a reported cost between $850,000 and $865,000. And representatives for each one applied for a building permit in 2018.
The project submitted by Wong’s company, Jenken Pacific, zoomed past the other projects in line and got approved within 45 days. Projects submitted by other developers took between three to seven times as long, with one taking almost a year.
The average review time for this kind of project in 2018 was 318 days.
Bryan Miyasaki, owner of Drafting Solutions, was also consistently fast, beating the average review time in all four categories. For alterations involving electrical work, he got his plans through in less than half the average time of the last decade.
In an interview, Miyasaki chalked up his relative speed up to polite persistence.
“I try to follow up and stay on top of the ball,” he said.
Since he started interacting with DPP about a decade ago, Miyasaki said he has suspected some applicants have tried to assert undue influence, but he said he has not.
“You see all these contractors bringing in fruit baskets and manapua boxes and you kind of know there was some collusion going on,” he said. “I try to stay away from all that. I just do my job.”
Donald Denison of Don’s Ohana Drafting Service is another standout.
From 2012 through 2022, new structures with electrical, plumbing and solar components had an average review time of 265 days, according to Civil Beat’s analysis.
Denison got his plans approved, on average, in 129 days – less than half the average time. And some of his projects got the stamp of approval even quicker. One, the construction of a brand new house in Waipahu, got DPP’s blessing within just 10 days.
In an interview, Denison said he was surprised to hear that his plans had moved so much faster than others and couldn’t say why. He said he hand-draws his plans based on the expertise he’s gleaned from 30 years in the business, and when he gets comments from DPP, he addresses them as soon as possible.
“When I get stuff in, I try to jump on it right away. I don’t just put it on the bottom of the pile and wait, especially if it’s something simple,” he said. “I never paid anybody off.”
Draftsman Ray Ohtani is an outlier too, beating the average review time in all four categories. For instance, throughout the last 10 years, alterations to structures that involved electrical work took DPP an average of 127 days to review and approve.
Ohtani’s projects in that category cleared DPP’s hurdles in an average of 32 days. Ohtani couldn’t be reached for comment.
Another faster-moving applicant in the last 10 years was Xiang Yee, allegedly one of the most prolific monster home developers on the island. He was able to get approvals in less than half the average time for projects in one particular category, those involving building alterations, plumbing and electrical work, the data shows.
In 2019, the Honolulu auditor found that Yee was among a small group of planmakers responsible for the vast majority of monster home development on the island. He was also cited by DPP this year for an unstable construction site after a boulder burst through a woman’s Palolo home.
One of Yee’s projects transformed a plantation-style home off Kapahulu Avenue into a 4,000-square-foot complex with 11 bedrooms, six bathrooms and multiple entrances. It took DPP about two and a half months to approve the plans in 2015 – less than half the average time for that kind of project at the time.
Another project associated with Yee – submitted by Prowork Pacific – replaced a modest house in Kahala with two supersized attached units – one six-bedroom and one five-bedroom, each with five bathrooms. The plans, submitted in 2017, were approved in just over a month and a half.
That year, the average permit review time for that type of project – new construction with electrical and plumbing elements – was around nine months.
Attempts to reach Yee through personal phone numbers and through his business, IMH Engineering, were unsuccessful.
Even Honolulu’s quicker-than-average contractors sometimes get bogged down.
For example, one of Denison’s projects in 2021 waited over a year – 453 days –for approval. Several of his quicker projects got done around 2012, when the department’s backlog wasn’t as severe as it is today. But in terms of the average and median times throughout the decade, these contractors set themselves apart from the pack.
The fastest applicants weren’t necessarily the entities that file the most permits overall. For instance, Palekana Permits, one of the most prolific Honolulu permit applicants, was middle of the road in terms of speed in the last decade, the data shows. Palekana’s leadership declined to comment for this story.
Why Some Building Applications Move Faster Than Others
In a pool with thousands of other permit applicants, Oahu homeowners and developers have their patience tested. Many wonder about preferential treatment. It has been widely believed for years that DPP, overwhelmed and understaffed, expedites some permits while leaving others behind.
Some employees have done so for money, as evidenced by the successful prosecution and prison sentences of five former employees.
But that’s not the only explanation.
Other projects may get a leg up – or be disadvantaged – based on the quality of the relationship between the applicant and the plans examiner, community members say.
“Even without the bribe, if they like you, you’re definitely going to go faster than if you make waves,” said Andrew Dixon, a draftsman of 30 years. “I mean, absolutely. It’s human nature.”
Nancy Kaya, who has submitted thousands of applications to DPP over the years, said she sympathizes with the under-resourced DPP employees and tries to maintain a can-do attitude. This is good for relationship-building and for her bottom line, she said.
“Instead of fighting it, you embrace it and say: How can I make it work?” she said.
Kaya’s permits moved faster than the average in one of the categories Civil Beat reviewed.
On the flip side, community members often fear crossing DPP will result in retaliation.
Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola said she spoke to one permit applicant who was in their third year of waiting. When Tupola asked the department about it, she said the deputy director placed the blame on “one problematic person who held onto it.”
“I was like, I knew it. Someone is holding it for no good reason,” Tupola said.
DPP has investigated three employees in the last year over concerns about favoritism. The cases are still being administratively adjudicated.
But there are many factors that play a role in the timing of a permit review that have nothing to do with special treatment, the department said.
For one, the quality of the plans themselves counts for a lot, Takeuchi Apuna said. An experienced draftsman who knows to include the elements that DPP looks for can move faster than an architect with beautiful plans that don’t check the right boxes, experts say.
Many of the plans that Civil Beat flagged as faster than normal were “master-tracked” projects that by their nature should move faster, Takeuchi Apuna said. When a number of “cookie cutter” houses are part of a planned development, the plans examiner will become familiar with the plans and likely approve them more and more efficiently, she said.
Affordable housing projects and solar permits also get priority, Takeuchi Apuna said.
Some projects benefit from having a third-party reviewer, a private professional certified by DPP to review and sign off on building code compliance. Wong was one such reviewer and actually helped pioneer the program, according to court records.
However, even projects with third-party reviewers are required to undergo prescreening by DPP and approval by entities like the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, the Honolulu Fire Department, and DPP’s wastewater division. That can tack on weeks or months.
Applicants themselves bear some responsibility too.
Eric Nemoto, president of TAG — The Actors’ Group, was so frustrated with the five-year process of obtaining the renovation permit for TAG’s Dole Cannery theater that he turned the story into a play. “Building Permit” debuted this month and sold out every show, a TAG first.
The production spoofs DPP’s painful delays – spanning three mayoral administrations – while also acknowledging that TAG’s pro bono architect wasn’t always able to answer DPP’s questions right away.
“I’m not going to go back to him as weeks and months pass, and say: Hey Gary, what are you doing?” Nemoto said in an interview. “He’s doing it out of the graciousness of himself.”
Others press the right political buttons.
One Wilhelmina Rise homeowner successfully pressured the department into fast-tracking her permit earlier this year by name-dropping the mayor’s office, according to copies of emails obtained by Civil Beat.
“I am trying to be patient but it is disappointing that this process has taken so long,” Dawn Yoshimura-Smith wrote, citing a meeting her contractor had with Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s chief of staff, Sam Moku.
After seeing that, DPP Deputy Jiro Sumada directed staff to move Yoshimura-Smith’s application to the front of the line.
“Pls push their permits to Next in Line for prescreen and plan review,” he wrote.
DPP’s new public-facing permit tracking system shows the Yoshimura-Smith’s permit spent zero days in “pre-submission review” and one day in the “plan-review queue” – lines that, at the time, were taking several weeks, on average.
Sumada’s order appears to have sped up her project by at least a month.
Another customer, the recently opened Filipino chain restaurant Potato Corner, also skipped the line after Blangiardi’s office inquired with DPP about it this month.
“I’m in the Mayors office and he’s asking about the permit for Potato Corner,” Sumada wrote to staff on Sept. 15. “Would you follow up? We need to get this permit issued.”
Three days later, he directed staff to “elevate this permit to the front of the line,” an email shows. Messages sent to permit applicant Dionisio Pentecostes and property owner Ricky Bonilla were not answered. Kiyoshi Toi was among those who drew up the plans, according to DPP’s records.
“People complain to the top when they can’t get what we need from the process,” Takeuchi Apuna said. “They will go up and up until they can get something done. That is not fair. And that is what staff knows. I think that is a product of the staff saying no. They don’t want to give special treatment.”
When it comes to people jumping to the front of the line, Takeuchi Apuna said: “That should not be happening.”
In a follow-up email to Civil Beat, Takeuchi Apuna said that Blangiardi has never asked DPP to expedite a permit. He has only asked about the status of projects when constituents inquire about their applications, she said.
“We do not push permits to the front of the line,” she said. “In the case of the Smith and Potato Corner permits, the DPP deputy director misunderstood the Mayor’s inquiry as a request to give them priority and this was relayed to staff.”
Yoshimura-Smith’s permit has already been approved, she said.
“But the Potato Corner application was placed back in the queue and is being reviewed like all other permits,” she said.
In an interview, Managing Director Mike Formby said there are cases in which certain applicants have been treated unfairly by DPP and moving them to the front of the line is a way to “make them whole.” But the administration leaves it to DPP’s discretion, he said.
City Councilman Tyler Dos Santos-Tam said in an interview that concerns about special treatment would not exist if the system was working properly.
“It’s a basic principle that we want to treat everyone fairly, first in, first out,” he said. “If we were able to get things out quickly, none of this would be an issue.”
Takeuchi Apuna agreed.
“We need to fix the permitting process so people can get their permits timely and that will help reduce any kind of opportunity for exploitation,” she said.
Civil Beat pulled publicly available permitting data from the Honolulu County data portal. We worked with the data to ensure we consistently captured all projects by each applicant. Because the dataset was so large, we narrowed it to capture projects from 2012-2022 and broke the data up into four categories representing some of the most common types of projects:
- New building with electrical, plumbing and solar work
- Alteration and addition with electrical and plumbing work
- Alteration with electrical and plumbing work
- Alteration with electrical work
From there, we further narrowed our search to applicants who had gotten 10 or more permits issued. We then calculated the differences between each permit application’s “created date” and the day on which DPP finished its review. Comparing each application against its competitors in the same category and at the same price point, we saw some applicants consistently getting their work approved faster than the average.
No dataset is perfect. The Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has acknowledged the data may be flawed due to inconsistent data entry practices over the years. And there are many variables that can impact the speed of the permitting process. Our findings are just one piece in the puzzle of Honolulu permitting.