Mauka to Makai

Mauka to Makai
Image: courtesy laura thielen

Take back the Act

Under Act 55, the PLDC can green light private development of formerly protected, preservation and ag lands

Mauka to Makai / How different would your life be if the number of tourists in Hawaii increased five-fold over the next 30 years?

This is not a hypothetical question. Tourism skyrocketed by a factor of 15 times during the 30 years between 1962 and 1992, from 360,000 to 6.4 million visitors.

In reaction to that pace of development, Hawaii adopted strong land use laws. These laws encourage development in urban areas, but require strict review of proposals to develop agricultural or preservation lands. Public hearings ensure disclosure and open participation in decisions on how to meet growth.

While developers complain about this system, the fact is, Hawaii has developed a lot of land to meet exponential growth. Rarely have developments been stopped. However, because our land use system takes public input seriously, local developers adopted some degree of self-restraint because they underwent a public permitting process.

Hawaii residents generally support tourism, but also support managing further growth by limiting hotel developments to existing resort areas. Consequently, no one has proposed opening new resort areas for many years. This limit on new hotel rooms has effectively stabilized our growth in tourism for the past 20 years. But Act 55, which created the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC), changes everything.

China, Korea and Taiwan are allowing residents freedom to travel. These countries have a combined population more than five times the size of the US. Our state is eagerly courting them and realizes it must develop new accommodations to meet this growing international demand.

Accordingly, Act 55 gave the PLDC two purposes:

1. Generate revenue for the state by developing state land; and

2. Develop recreational and leisure centers where visitors to our state can go as part of their holiday experience.

The law repeatedly instructs the PLDC to meet the demands of emerging national and international visitor-industry markets. The PLDC is charged with surveying international leisure trends; “exploiting” international markets; and developing new recreation and visitor-industry enterprises, including hotels and timeshares(1).

In order to achieve its purpose, Act 55 exempts all PLDC projects from every state and county land use law.

The PLDC can build new commercial resorts in the preservation district. It can build golf courses on prime agricultural land. It can authorize developments that ignore state and county plans, beach setbacks, height limits, use restrictions and laws that protect public access. PLDC projects do not go through permitting processes, so the public is denied the opportunity to weigh in. The PLDC can conduct back-room negotiations with private developers, the Board can approve an agreement in a single meeting, and the developer can begin construction.

Remember Save Sandy Beach? Public involvement in the land-use permitting process did stop that development; the state purchased the land and put land use protections on it. The irony is that now the PLDC can ignore the land use protections and sign an agreement with a developer to place a resort on that land without any permitting process.

It may not start with Ka Iwi. But sights are already set on Waimanalo. One of the first items on the PLDC agenda is to control state land under the Olomana Golf Course, so they can make a deal with the Chinese company that recently bought that lease.

Act 55 is an affront to communities who have invested time in planning processes, because it allows the PLDC to ignore those plans. It’s also an affront to private property owners. Act 55 devalues Kamehameha Schools’ trust, and all other private property values, because it allows state developments to ignore the rules that govern everyone else’s property.

We are facing a tsunami of foreign investment, the likes of which we have never seen. The volume and pace of development in China is practically incomprehensible. Imagine what Chinese developers can do in Hawaii when our land use or zoning laws don’t apply to them. Imagine which public trust lands will be developed to meet Asian tourist demands.

George Ariyoshi recently spoke about this wave of Chinese investment. “It is crucial to ask the question, is this money coming to Hawaii good for us? It is good for the business and it is good for the landowners, but it also has to be something that is good for Hawaii.”(2)

The rise in tourism and development over the next 30 years should not be decided in back-room negotiations between foreign investors and a government hungry for easy revenue.

We need a public discussion to identify the acceptable level of tourism in Hawaii over the next 30 years. We must repeal or put a moratorium on the PLDC to prevent new tourist destination sites from being built in the meantime.

We should first create a tourism capacity and growth model for our state that is “good for Hawaii.” Then we can examine our land use laws and see which, if any, need to be changed for everyone.

We shouldn’t play favorites with exemptions or allow public trust lands to be given away in back-room deals. We must respect land use planning and public participation to address growth in a manner which respects our residents’ quality of life and our natural resources.

(1) HRS 171-C-4(10), (11), (12)
(2) “Government should prepare for foreign investment wave,” Richard Borreca, Star-Advertiser, 9/16/12.
Laura H. Thielen is former chairperson of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, former director of the state Office of Planning, and a candidate for State Senate, District 25.

Be heard:

On Thu., Oct. 11 at 2:30 p.m., the PLDC board will meet in room 132 of the Kalanimoku Building at 1151 Punchbowl St. The agenda includes discussing public comments received, PLDC’s strategic plan and whether to hold a follow-up hearing.

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