Bill may ease the way for farm buildings

When John Phelps applied for a building permit last October to repair a leaking roof and to add another roof over a porch area on his farm in Haiku, he thought he would be building within a couple weeks.

He never thought that in April, more than six months after he submitted his application, he still would be waiting for his permit.

“We had intended to do all the construction work last year,” said Phelps, noting that county officials finally called him back this week and said that he would have his permit in two weeks.

Today, his roof is still leaking, and now because of the hold up with the permit, he must find and hire new contractors to complete the job, a process that will cost him even more time and money.

But a bill currently passing through the Legislature may change all of that for agricultural farmers.

Senate Bill 586 aims to reduce time and costs for commercial farmers by allowing them to bypass the permitting process and certain building codes for structures like greenhouses, storage sheds, water tanks or other “low-risk” agricultural structures that are necessary for farm operations not in urban districts.

In short, farmers would be able to build certain structures, which are specifically outlined in the bill, without having to wait or pay for building permits.

“You’re talking about small- and medium-sized farmers that can’t afford the time or the expense to put up simple, low-risk structures to house or protect tools from weather or theft,” said Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau.

More than 30 other states already have similar exemptions in place for low-risk farm structures, he added.

Bill opponents say these exemptions would jeopardize public health and safety.

“Unregulated grading of building pads, roads, etc. can create significant environmental impacts when heavy rainfall occurs,” state Department of Agriculture Chairman Russell Kokubun said in testimony. “A structure not built according to plan creates unsafe working conditions, not just for the worker, but for visitors.”

Maui County departments of Public Works and Fire, which handle building and occupancy permits, also submitted testimony against the bill.

“New construction must meet minimum fire and life safety standards, consistently regarding firefighting access roads and water supply,” Fire Chief Jeffrey Murray said in testimony. “Without the regulatory oversight of the permit process, buildings may not meet minimum standards.”

The measure is one of more than a dozen farm-related bills going through the Legislature.

Versions of Senate Bill 586 have been passed by both the House and Senate and are slated to be heard by a conference committee made up of members from both legislative branches. The committee must agree upon a version of the bill before April 25 or the bill will die.

Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and introducer of the bill, is hopeful that the measure will reach the governor’s office.

The main concern now, Nishihara said, is that the House version of the bill has watered down the language, changing phrases like “the structure shall be exempt” to “the structure may be exempt.” This would weaken the bill and give counties more power to deny exemptions.

Still, as long as both sides can reach an agreement, the bill has a good chance of being signed into law, said Nishihara. Ultimately, the bill is about giving farmers “more control over their own operations,” he said.

“Building permits can take months or even years now because counties are backed up,” said Nishihara. “That gives any farmer trying to make improvements to their operations an added challenge because of the amount of time it takes to get the approval.”

Sydney Smith, who owns Maliko Estate Coffee farm in Makawao, agrees that the permitting process has been an ongoing problem for farmers.

“Building permits are costly. You need plans and blueprints, and you have to go through many different departments, and that gets expensive,” said Smith, who also is president of the Maui Coffee Association.

Building permit fees in Maui County range from $20 for small projects to nearly $5,000 for larger endeavors, according to the county’s website. A design plan review is an extra $50.

Time is the other concern, said Smith.

“If I want to build a drying shed to dry my coffee, I want to be able to find a place for it and build it without having to submit plans, wait and maybe lose a whole growing season while I’m waiting for paperwork.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at