Rob Parsons

Shades of Mediocrity

Planning Commission? or planning omission?

By Rob Parsons
Published in Maui Time Weekly
May 03, 2007

Is it possible that I am a simpleton? I have never thought so myself; and no one must know it now if I am so. Can it be, that I am unfit for my office? No, that must not be said either. I will never confess that I could not see the robes of silk and gold.

-Hans Christian Anderson, The Emperor's New Clothes

There is no joy in pointing the finger of blame at what isn't working in our community, government, country or world. Yet sometimes we must reveal the pervasive follies and pompous tendency to call them something else.

On Tuesday, Apr. 24-the same day the Dalai Lama offered a free teaching at War Memorial Stadium-the Maui Planning Commission met, as they usually do, at the ground-floor conference room in the Kalana Pakui building in Wailuku. The Planning Commission, like other arms of Maui County government, has minimally risen to the challenges set before them in advising and adjudicating responsible planning for our island. With the bar set so low, County planners and private consultants have little incentive to provide more than cursory guidance to assist them in their jobs.

My reason for attending was to testify on a request by Hawaiian Cement to continue excavating sand from inland dunes between Wailuku and Waikapu on a parcel owned by Alexander & Baldwin. An application for a County and State Special Use Permit had been pending since July, 2003-nearly four years-and finally the measure had found its way onto the agenda.

Back in early 2003, while serving as County Environmental Coordinator, I inherited management of six grants for beach and dune restoration, a one-time appropriation totaling $100,000. Inquiring as to the source of clean sand for these beach replenishment projects, I learned that both Ameron and Hawaiian Cement mined the central Maui dunes and that barges left Kahului Harbor regularly to supply sand to Oahu. That made me question resource conservation, given the high rate of extraction.

Concurrently, the Maui-Lanai Islands Burial Council was conducting a review of more than 20 burials encountered by Hawaiian Cement (today the number of disturbed burials has topped 60). Examining the Maui County Code, the Burial Council noted that excavation of sand was not a permitted use in the agricultural district and that the Planning Department should require a Special Use Permit, not just a grading permit.

I reviewed the Hawaiian Cement application and provided official comments in October 2003. I noted that the application fell short of meeting the County Code and Hawai`i Revised Statute criteria, and should be deemed incomplete. I listed more than a dozen omissions, inadequacies and inaccuracies, then called for resubmission of a detailed Project Assessment. Among the missing elements were a Biological Inventory Survey for rare plants, traffic analysis and a review by the Cultural Resource Commission.

In December 2003 the interested parties discussed the matter in the Mayor's lounge. Hawaiian Cement's lawyers argued that a grading permit was sufficient to manage the resource, while noting that Ameron had removed more than three million cubic yards of sand on adjacent Maui Lani parcels in the urban land use district. A representative from their planning consultant, Chris Hart and Partners, postulated that there might still be 50 years of sand left at current extraction rates.

Over the next year, I was part of an ad hoc group that defined the scope of an in-depth study that the County sent to a contractor at a cost of $12,000. Two years later, in February 2006, the Maui Inland Sand Resource Quantification Study was finished. It differed sharply from Hawaiian Cement's assurances. In fact, it indicated that there might be no more than five years of sand left and that 70 per cent of excavated sand is being shipped to Oahu.

Mayor Alan Arakawa then sent the study to County Council and called for a moratorium on exports until they could craft legislation to conserve the resource. The Council took up the discussion last fall, but was unable to find a way to create an ordinance to limit sand exports.

During this time, sand exports accelerated. According to Kahului Harbormaster Steve Pfister, there were 63 sand barge trips in 2004; 96 in 2005; and 86 in 2006, though a much bigger barge went into service in July. The sand study estimated that a barge load of 4,000 tons of sand is equivalent to 133 semi-truck loads. In other words, nearly 34,000 truckloads of sand left the island in just the past three years.

Fast forward to the Apr. 24 Planning Commission hearing. Outspoken new commissioner Joan Pawsat arrived a half hour late. When asked if she'd care to make any remarks at her first official meeting, she leaned forward to the microphone and said, "Not really."

Two hours into the hearing, a Planning Department staffer offered the report on Hawaiian Cement's application. Chris Hart himself gave a Powerpoint presentation. Commissioners Jonathon Starr, Dr. William Iaconetti and Pawsat expressed concerns that overall export numbers, including Ameron's totals, were not provided.

The Commission adjourned for lunch, but announced that another agenda item would be taken up next, so an Oahu consultant could be assured of making his plane flight. After lunch, discussion of the Pali to Puamana Environmental Assessment dragged on for a couple more hours.

By now, I had abandoned my hopes of seeing the Dalai Lama. Finally the Commission resumed discussion of the sand item and public testimony began.

I asked for leniency in the three-minute time limit, given my background and knowledge of the issues. I said the Planning Department report still had numerous errors, including the size of the parcel-it was 434 acres, not 494-which I had pointed out three years earlier.

Also, a map shown in the Powerpoint presentation did not conform to the one in the report. In fact, the new proposal was for an entirely new 56-acre area within the larger parcel, not the 58 acres originally studied. But no agency comments had been solicited since 2003 to study the new area, except for an archaeological assessment. Basically, I said the application was actually less complete than before. Hedani asked if I felt denying the application was wise, as it would restrict the construction industry. I replied that I hadn't asked them to deny the application, but just to defer it until they had enough vital data to make informed decisions. Then they might be able to approve it with conditions.

Recommended conditions in the Planning report included that Hawaiian Cement not export sand off Maui, and that they make sand available at cost for approved beach nourishment projects. I said that I believed these conditions were great, but didn't go far enough.

Presenting a copy of the 1954 Doak Cox report, The Spreckelsville Beach Problem to the Commission, I said I believed that A&B has a kuleana to provide sand for beach replenishment free of cost, as they had mined sand from the North Shore for at least seven decades in the past century.

Hedani cut me off, saying his question had been answered.

Then Mercer "Chubby" Vicens, a representative of A&B, stood and addressed the commission. "Anytime you give something for nothing," he said, "you fail both parties."

Say what? Allocating sand for replenishment to replace what was taken from the public beach sure sounded like a win-win to me. But then, my thinking isn't limited to economics, but extends to sustainability and environmental fairness.

As the clock ticked closer to 5 p.m., the commissioners grew restless. Starr moved to defer decisions until more detailed information was provided, but the motion failed.

The staff planner then read proposed conditions. She amended the wording in two of them, to reflect "fair-share" contributions to pave shoulders on Waiko Road, and to change, "approved beach nourishment" projects to "County funded" projects.

Commissioners had no quibbles with the changes.

But I did. "County funded" rendered the condition impotent, since there is no existing funding for beach replenishment projects, nor is any proposed for fiscal year 2008. With a motion on the floor to approve the application as is, I stood up to call a point of order, saying that the last minute change meant that the public did not have legal notice to review this proposed condition.

Chair Johanna Amorin banged her gavel and stated that public testimony had closed. Exactly my reason for bringing it to their attention, I countered, since the public couldn't comment on this significant change.

Amorin asked if it was the will of the commissioners to reopen testimony to discuss it. It was not. "He already had more than his three minutes," one grumbled.

That was that. I left, frustrated that at every level, everyone seemed content with insufficient data and a minimum of actual public participation in the process.

Awareness that something isn't working is the first step to changing it. Our system of appointed commissioners, approved by County Council, has assured a pro-development Planning Commission for years. Former Commissioner Diane Shepherd, known for doing her homework and asking tough questions, recently resigned, saying she was working too hard and achieving too few positive results.

Our system of government works best when citizens participate, beginning with voting. Short of that, we're unlikely to achieve the level of proficiency required to face a fast-changing future.