Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, January 14, 1998

The role of the Land Use Commission

THEY used to love us for our bureaucrats. When Hawaii was a young state, it was admired for its clear, sensitive and intelligent planning process. A large part of the respect came because of the state's Land Use Commission.

The commission today, however, isn't getting invited to the same dance. Today the commission is so reviled as an impediment to progress that it is on Gov. Ben Cayetano's Economic Revitalization Task Force hit list.

Borrowing a page from Republican gubernatorial platforms of more than a decade, Cayetano's commission wants to scrap the commission and turn planning back to the counties.

Business complains, according to the task force, that a "lengthy and indeterminate time" is needed to process permits.

Before we work up a frenzy of perceived red tape slashing, it may be better to sheathe our knives and listen to two of the state's most respected planners.

Tom Dinell, professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Hawaii, and Robin Foster, former Honolulu planning director and past president of the local chapter of the American Planning Association, have a better idea.

The pair prepared the planning association's position on land-use reform, which calls for an integrated state and county land-use system. As they see it the problem is that the Land Use Commission has become another zoning board.

"Too many public resources are being spent on project-by-project, application-driven land-use regulation; and, conversely, too little is being spent on effective planning," they said.

It appears the Economic RevitalizationTask Force wasn't looking at planning. It was just trying to rid the business community of the bothersome requirement of getting a Land Use Commission ticket for every development.

Dinell and Foster, however, appear to have another approach.

"What we have is a state zoning law. What we don't have is state planning," Foster says.

Because of pressure from environmentalists and others who don't trust the county councils to stay out of the planning process, the state's Land Use Commission has become a long list of contested case hearings.

"This has evolved into a project-by-project application process," Foster said.

"By doing this you are giving up on the future," Dinell said. "What happens is the sum of a bunch of individual projects, not a vision for the future."

To bring us back on course, the pair are hoping the Legislature will look at their idea.

Essentially, they call for each county to be given the responsibility and a time limit to set up its own plan. The county will have to work with the state to prepare its plan and regularly revise it.

But then the plan becomes the responsibility of the county. The state would spend its time defining state interests, handling conservation districts and setting health standards.

RIGHT now, the state doesn't have the time to do planning, they say. Sometimes we just bungle it, as in the case of the state's new surplus of water after the close of the sugar plantations. An example of good planning, according to them, is the cooperation between the city and state on the Ewa second city plan.

"Businessmen have thought that the Land Use Commission was the problem, but what they really want to know is if something is possible. They just want consistency," Dinell said.

Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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