WAILUKU - For the past year, at the direction of Mayor Charmaine Tavares, the county Department of Planning has quietly been working to streamline and update the county's out-of-date code into a new era of "smart-growth" and "mixed-use" planning.
For who knows how long, residents, businesses and developers have complained that getting any county permit has become a daunting, expensive and slow process.
And the scope of what actually can be built in the various zoning districts hasn't kept up with the times, said Planning Department Director Jeff Hunt.
Planning Department head
When the code was written decades ago, the county would intentionally distance industrial and agricultural areas from homes because so much noxious or smelly activity was going on, Hunt said. But while farming and manufacturing still needs to be actively promoted and assisted, the island has really moved into an information-based economy.
And, for many, that increasingly means they want to live and work in the same neighborhood, Hunt said. These code amendments would enable more green practices to occur, and would promote economic sustainable development and energy renewal, he said.
"We're making some substantial changes, but we're not making any quantum leaps," Hunt added.
The county planners, citizen advisers and planning commissioners and eventually the County Council members who are all involved in this massive undertaking aren't throwing out Chapter 19 of the Maui County Code, Hunt said. However, some major reforms will likely come to County Council members soon, such as easy-to-understand tables, digitized maps, online applications and the elimination of archaic terminology.
For instance, no more "women's apparel stores" or "haberdasheries" in the code. Those terms will be replaced with the much more inclusive and modern phrase "general merchandising," Hunt said.
Because the project is so expansive, county planners said it must be done in baby steps, said Maui Planning Commission Member Jonathan Starr. The Planning Department began the effort in August by drafting language to change the residential zoning district to legalize home-based businesses with only one employee other than the owner.
That seemed to go over well in the community. Many home-based entrepreneurs, such as accountants and Internet salespeople, simply asked what took the Maui County so long to catch up with times.
The Maui Planning Commission approved of the change. And the legal terminology of the bill is still being worked out before it goes to the County Council, Hunt said.
Administrative planning officer Joe Alueta recently presented to the Maui, Molokai and Lanai planning commissions a set of five proposed bills that would add new mixed uses to the county's business districts. The main component would allow transient vacation rentals or small inns in business areas as well as small-scale renewable energy facilities, such as home wind turbines towers; and residential uses, such as dwellings above and below businesses.
Although transient vacation rentals, where the owner doesn't live on site and rents out an apartment or home, have been controversial in neighborhoods and remain banned without a rare conditional use permit, Hunt said he did not anticipate vacation rentals to be a problem in business districts.
It's customary to find small hotels in business districts, he said.
"A lot of business people just need a room where they're working and don't want to stay in a resort on the other side of the island," Hunt said.
He said that he believes his department can create a compromise to bring vacation rentals back to the commercial districts in places like country towns, such as Makawao and Pukalani. Years ago, the short-term rental units were removed from those areas essentially to move them all to the hotel districts on the west and south sides of the island, Hunt said.
Last year, the County Council and Planning Department reformed the bed-and-breakfast ordinance that allows operators to rent out their home or an ohana on site. The council is expected to take up vacation rental reform sometime after it completes the General Plan update process next year, Hunt said.
However, county spokeswoman Mahina Martin said people should not expect to see vacation rentals become easier to establish in neighborhoods. Their presence has too much of a negative impact on a small community's character, she said.
Hunt said the proposed smart-growth changes fit in with values and goals laid out in the Countywide Policy Plan and the Maui Island Plan, which together will amend the General Plan. The intent is to facilitate growth in mostly already-developed areas while promoting economic diversity and financial growth by giving both workers and investors more options, Hunt said.
Martin said that Tavares started the separate zoning district modernization process about a year ago by creating a task force. In addition to the Planning Department, the departments of Water Supply, Parks and Recreation, and Public Works are also involved.
What they are all doing is really something that is going on in counties and municipalities across the United States, Martin said.
"It's very European," Hunt said of the changes that will allow people, for example, to work in an office and live upstairs or within walking distance.
The main reason planners are moving ahead slowly, Martin said, is because the mayor wants to be certain that the various departments and their staffs can handle whatever changes are made. Every proposal is vetted internally for any potential hang ups, she said.
With smaller public coffers, the county is looking at further departmental cutbacks.
"We must be able to deliver what we promise," Martin said.
Up next will be a set of subtle bills that allow conditional use permit renewals to be done administratively rather than making an applicant go all the way to the County Council to get an approval for what they've been doing legally for years, Hunt said. It would also be easier for a business to add some off-street parking or make minor motif improvements, he said.
Then, planning commissions will be asked to look at proposed amendments to the parks, public/quasi-public, industrial and hotel districts, Hunt said.
A lot of the work has involved removing entire sections of the code, cleaning it up and installing graphics and matrixes that any would-be builder or layperson can more readily understand, Starr said. Also, a lot of code language is duplicated, but it doesn't match up with the same terminology since it's been edited over a period of decades.
It's housekeeping, Starr said.
With the help of improved methods, the time it takes to get an administrative Planning Department approval has gone from six months to 12 business days, Hunt said. However, that probably has more to do with the glacial pace of the economy, he said.
But when the economy does picks up, and that will happen soon here, Maui County will be ready, Hunt said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.