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Honolulu DPP resignations are concerning for construction industry, City Council chair

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Catherine Cruz
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HPR

Honolulu's Department of Planning and Permitting enforces zoning laws and oversees planning on Oʻahu. However, changes to the permitting process at DPP have led to further delays and a backlog of commercial and residential projects.

"Recent experience, certainly it has been a challenge," said Katie MacNeil, principal architect at G70 — a local design firm. "I understand that there's a number of unfilled positions, but beyond that, it really is changing the processes that were in place that were working."

The difficulty is obtaining a building permit application number, which is at the very beginning of the process, says MacNeil. She likens it to waiting in line at a movie theater.

"If it's a popular movie, it'll take you a half hour to wait in line to get into that movie. One that has been out for a bit, you can arrive and see the movie. The length of the movie hasn't changed at all, but your time in the process has. So the review is being delayed because we haven't been accepted into the movie theater."

The added delays and uncertainty surrounding the approval process pose problems for project stakeholders. Todd Hassler, vice president of the American Institute of Architects Honolulu Chapter and partner at Peter Vincent Architects, says it adds more challenges for firms on the front end of projects.

"When we talk to potential clients, they inevitably want to know the schedule, and want to set expectations for their project," Hassler told HPR. "It's hard for us to really educate them on the process, and get them to really understand the uncertainty of these timeframes."

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MacNeil says clients must then decide whether or not a project is worth continuing or pursuing.

The news of the resignations surprised and disappointed several other Honolulu architects. Hassler, who is part of a small task force at AIA Honolulu, tells HPR the organization had regularly scheduled meetings with former DPP Director Dean Uchida.

"We were all quite surprised, it seemed pretty abrupt," Hassler said. "We were certainly disappointed because we really valued those opportunities. So we are hoping that the next director can provide us with a similar courtesy with that frequency of communication through the AIA."

Architects MacNeil and Hassler say they do share hope the department will improve the process. Hassler suggests DPP revises its permit application checklist.

"We find that we're getting comments that kind of go beyond that checklist, and it's not necessarily followed by the reviewers," he said. "One thing that we think would be super helpful is to have a clear, concise checklist provided by DPP that can be followed, quantified, and adhered to during the review process."

Hassler notes AIA Honolulu has created a list of changes the department could make to alleviate the permitting delays. Among the suggestions includes setting realistic timelines for the process, and the use of third-party reviewers.

"The city allowed for third-party reviewers to allow a release of some of the interview reviews," he said. "That really took a lot of pressure off of the city."

MacNeil tells HPR that the adoption of some of AIA Honolulu's suggestions would be a step in the right direction. But a short-term solution could be the department reversing the changes it made.

"There were things that were definitely working within the permitting system, and to not throw everything out," she told HPR. "That really, I think, is what created the challenges that we see today — trying to overhaul the process and the system."

Resignations come at a bad time for the city

Council Chair Tommy Waters believes the resignations of Uchida and former chief innovation strategist Danette Maruyama were partly due to the growing backlog in the permitting process. He says he was saddened to hear of their resignations, but they come at a bad time.

"I'm really concerned because both the director and the chief innovation strategist both have resigned when we're trying to modernize the Department of Planning and Permitting," Waters said.

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Honolulu City Council
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FILE - Council Chair Tommy Waters at the grand opening of Kapahulu Market at the Honolulu Zoo. (Aug. 31, 2022)

Waters says the council has invested a lot of money and support to bring DPP into the 21st century with the hope it will streamline the permitting process.

"They were both in a difficult position, both the mayor and the director. So I was hoping we could work through it."

Waters acknowledges the department's persistent staffing shortage. One of the main causes of the unfilled vacancies is compensation.

"I've been an advocate for paying these folks more money. You get what you pay for sometimes," Waters told HPR. "So why not professionalize that department? Pay people more? Have them study the land use ordinance, get to know it like the back of their hands. And hopefully, that will result in shorter periods for waiting for your permit."

But there are other concerns that fall under DPP's purview.

Next month, the city's new short-term rental law goes into effect. The City Council approved Bill 41 earlier this year, amending the city's ordinance regulating vacation rentals. The measure increases the minimum amount of time a unit can be rented without a permit from 30 to 90 days.

"DPP is the one tasked with enforcing it," Waters said. "So that's going to be a huge problem."

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Casey Harlow / HPR
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In summer 2022, the city's Department of Planning and Permitting revoked three building permits and issued a stop work order for 3615 Sierra Drive. Officials said the project violated the city's land use ordinance.

Another is the inspection and enforcement of "monster homes." Waters recently introduced a measure that would create a "three strike" rule for owners and developers who regularly violate the city's zoning ordinances.

In the meantime, a measure to conduct a performance audit of DPP's permitting system was introduced by Waters.

Waters hopes to find a new director for DPP "sooner rather than later." And he hopes the director, in partnership with the City Council, can find solutions to resolve the department's challenges.

"The Department of Planning and Permitting really does help our economy, and keeps our economic engine moving through the construction industry," he told HPR.

Acting DPP Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna declined to be interviewed for this story.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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