Rob Parsons

Sign of the Times

Looking for indications of a mid-course correction

by Rob Parsons

February 12, 2009

"Sign, sign everywhere a sign /Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind/ Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?"
-Five Man Electric Band, 1970

Nearly a century ago, seven visionary women launched a campaign to ban billboards from the streets of Honolulu, and throughout Hawaii. These early efforts, begun in 1912, foreshadowed the women's rights struggle and environmental crusades that were waged many decades later.

Despite the potential for advertising revenue that billboards might generate, and increased customer traffic, the businessmen of Hawaii agreed that limitations should take place in order to protect and enhance the unique beauty of the islands. Though it cannot be known with absolute certainty, some reports indicate that the early women of the Outdoor Circle withheld normal intimate marital relations until their wealthy and influential husbands acquiesced.

The forward-thinking beautification and preservation goals of the Outdoor Circle still reverberate today. Their mission statement is: "To protect Hawaii's scenic environment by advocating for the planting and protection of trees, burying of utility lines, promoting recycling, and fighting for a billboard-free Hawaii, among other issues."

While rules governing political signs for electioneering of candidates have eased somewhat in recent years, the overall landscape of signage in Hawaii is far less cluttered than any Mainland state.

So why is it I'm seeing a recent proliferation of large, 16-square-foot signs announcing that select property owners are applying for a Bed & Breakfast permit? Because it's part of the new B&B law, passed by the county council at the end of 2008, that signs be erected as part of the notification process.

It's curious that this requirement was included, since applicants are already required to notify, by registered mail, all property owners within 500 feet of their lot. The problem isn't just the visual pollution of the 4-by-4 sign; the requirement also brands property owners with the Scarlet Letter for some "unspeakable transgression."

While the council may believe they deserve a pat on the back for finally codifying regulations for one sector of island visitors who choose to stay somewhere other than beachfront hotels or condos, the length of time it took to do so was unacceptable. In fact, a similar ordinance to provide legal guidelines for so-called Transient Vacation Rentals is still languishing in council sub-committee.

The delay has caused undo hardship, and lost income and jobs for an untold number of Maui residents. Meanwhile, the local economy has run aground, not unlike the USS Port Royal, a $1 billion Navy guided missile cruiser stuck on a sand bar outside Pearl Harbor.

Perhaps the misfortune of that over-bloated military warship is appropriately indicative of how far off course our country has strayed by placing military spending far above all else in our federal budget. Given the rancorous debate over President Obama's stimulus plan, it appears the economy is falling faster than Washington's partisan politics can act to revive it.

According to the New York Times, unemployment is up in all 50 states, including Hawaii, where it hit 5.5 percent in December 2008. That number is two percentage points lower than the overall U.S. rate of 7.6 percent, but more than three points higher than Hawaii's 2.2 percent unemployment from a mere two years ago.

Nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in January, the worst plunge in 35 years. Meanwhile, the new home sales rate hit its lowest mark since record keeping began in 1963, according to the Washington Post.

And you can bet your bottom dollar-which may be about all some island residents have left these days-that the Mainland miasma will have a continuing trickle-down effect on Hawaii.

So, shouldn't we be interested in doing everything possible to correct the course, including reinvigorating the TVR industry? How much longer should it take to craft fair rules and guidelines for that once-lucrative component of our local economy? And should those applicants, too, face the draconian hurdle of erecting huge signs announcing their proposed business?

Fortunately, the Maui community will have the opportunity for another meaningful presentation on the topic of sustainability, also defined as, "Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Report of the Brundtland Commission, "Our Common Future," 1987).

Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Carpet and author of the 1999 classic sustainability tome, Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Future, will be the fifth speaker in the Focus Green lecture series. Appearing Thursday, February 12 at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center, Anderson's visit will remind Maui residents of an appeal he made over a decade ago.

In 1997, Anderson brought nearly 1,000 associates to Maui to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Interface, Inc. one of the nation's and the world's largest carpet manufacturers. But, upon reading Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce, Anderson realized he had barely a clue about incorporating the processes of the natural world into a business model. Rather than relegate "used" carpet, fabricated with a myriad of toxic materials, to the landfill, Anderson conceptualized a way to "re-manufacture" old carpets into new materials. An idea, and a revolutionary movement, was born.

Thus, when Anderson brought his company's top brass and workers to Maui a decade ago, he decided it wouldn't be just a typical corporate vacation. Rather, he wanted to have a positive impact. Anderson worked with Maui Tomorrow Foundation's Kekula and Scott Crawford, who helped organize an "Environmental Dream Team" of conference presenters to share positive messages about an emerging concept known as "sustainability."

Among those brought in were Hawken, Sierra Club President and patriarch David Brower, Amory and Hunter Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, William McDonough and an assortment of Hawaii politicians, leaders and environmental advocates. Interface also worked with the host Grand Wailea Hotel & Spa to conduct an eco-audit, in order to reduce the footprint of the largest commercial electrical user on Maui.

Light bulbs and fixtures were changed, recommendations were made to forego daily changing of sheets and towels and it was revealed that the waterfall feature at the resort's entrance amounted to 10,000 gallons of water a day lost to evaporation. It seemed, for the moment, that Maui was waking up and preparing to step into the 21st century.

Current Maui Tomorrow president Mark Sheehan described the event as "the most inspiring of all the conferences I've seen in Hawaii, to have had all of these visionaries here on Maui at one time."

The next two years were marked by educational efforts by Maui Tomorrow to inform county leaders of the challenges and opportunities inherent in our dependence on fossil fuels. The debate over Maui Electric Company's proposed 62-acre Maui Waena generation site on Pulehu Road opened a broad discussion on the future prices of oil and on reasonable local alternative resources.

The discussion is alive and well today, a decade later, though some would ask why the implementation of sustainable solutions has taken so long.

In an article posted February 9 in the Honolulu Advertiser, business writer/guru Andrea Kay wrote that graduates with green/sustainability degrees from a growing number of colleges and institutions face a rosy future. "Graduates have found corporate social responsibility positions at Alcoa, GE, Deloitte Consulting, Duke Energy, Boeing and Piper Jaffray, as well as government agencies and non-governmental organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and World Bank," Kay reported.

(Nota bene: Please do not interpret this as a Rob Report endorsement for large corporations or especially the World Bank construct. Instead, please read this as a positive potential cross-pollination between enviros and business professionals.)

Back to the matter of signs, and their overall value to a community review process: When I traveled to Savannah, Georgia for an energy efficiency conference in June 2007, I marveled at protections offered for their historic districts. Walking in the old town area, I passed a number of properties marked with small, clear signs denoting proposals for obtaining a "Certificate of Appropriateness." In other words, there was an obvious public notice on the property that a change was pending.

What would be the outcome, I pondered, of an ordinance on Maui that would require developers to post a requested application well in advance of it appearing on a Planning Commission or county council agenda? Mind you, the Savannah notices were obvious to passersby, but were not visually obtrusive, like those mandated for B&B applicants.

Many times, people have told me they had no idea what was planned for a particular property until they saw bulldozers show up one day. So wouldn't informative, unobtrusive signage to announce proposed land use changes be a positive step for Maui? It might make sense to enlist the dedicated members of the Outdoor Circle in the effort.

If we are to put ourselves on the path to sustainability, Maui and Hawaii must make giant steps to achieve a mid-course correction. That's a journey not to be taken just by a few intrepid voyagers, but by each and every Hawaii resident.