My approach to leading the Economic Development Committee (EDC) since I started this role last summer has been to invite members of our community with key perspectives in Hawai‘i Island’s economy to speak to the EDC and field questions during our monthly meetings. Going straight to the “top”, including mayors, CEOs, County department heads, etc. allows participants in these meetings to get direct visibility into various issues, future plans, and strategic concerns. In that spirit, the April EDC guest speaker was Zendo Kern, Director of the Hawai‘i County Planning Department (PD). During our meeting Director Kern expressed how appreciative he is about the high level of motivation and talent in his PD team, despite numerous challenges. Most are now back in the office as COVID working restrictions are slowly relaxed. The combination of limited resources in PD while tackling a large backlog of permits and developing a new on-line planning system (Energov) to overhaul the planning system is a daunting challenge but Director Kern is taking it all in stride. The new Energov system is more than a tracking tool within PD – it will integrate data across departments including zoning, critical habitat, licenses, property data, etc. so that permit applications can be worked on concurrently by multiple people in the County Office instead of using a serial process. Offering much higher transparency as well, Energov has considerable promise and because the anticipated benefits are so large, Director Kern has assigned some of his staff away from their normal duties to work exclusively on Energov. July 26 is the launch date for Energov and Director Kern expressed a “burn the boats at the beach”, no going back approach to preparing for the launch. He also asked that people initially have patience with the phase 1 rollout, when bugs are no doubt going to be found.
Considerable progress was reported in reducing the backlog of permit applications that need to be processed, with the total backlog down to ~4 weeks. He described finding a sort of “analysis paralysis” situation in PD, in which so much effort was being invested to analyze permits that the entire system was getting bogged down and decisions weren’t being made in a timely manner. To help address that Director Kern held up during our EDC meeting a thick stack of internal procedural memos dating back decades that he was canceling to break the deadlock over their interpretation, starting anew with internal procedures as needed and ultimately consistent with Energov. Director Kern also expressed a refreshing “can do” approach to assessing permit applications, looking for ways for applicants to succeed with their permits (within limits). If permits are rejected, instead of applicants only being told they’ve been rejected, PD provides information explaining why the permit was rejected and what needs to be done to address the problem. He also explained that minor changes to plans no longer trigger full permit reviews, increasing the capacity of his team and helping them keep up with permit applications. He repeatedly expressed the importance of the PD moving beyond being a regulatory department to an administrative resource filled with public servants.
The Q&A part of our meeting focused on specific development projects and sites around Hawaii Island. Director Kern noted how expensive development was becoming in West Hawai‘i, driven in part by lack of infrastructure. Inventory is also particularly low in West Hawai‘i, driving up prices. Next year’s PD budget was described as a “status quo” budget, as they will press to do more with the same amount of resources. Overall it was an extremely informative meeting that covered a lot of ground!
Our next guest speaker will be County Council Member Ashley Kierkiewicz who represents Council District 4. She will bring to the meeting a wide range of ideas for helping build our island economy while preserving what makes Hawai‘i Island special. That meeting will occur on May 21 at 1:30 so please join us for another great meeting of the EDC if you can!