WAILUKU - In Maui County Department of Planning Director Will Spence's office are a few boxes containing photos, the most prominent of which seem to be of gorgeous skylines and delicate plants found throughout the Valley Isle.
These handcrafted photos by Spence, 55, of Kula, are not only his hobby but also a tool he's incorporated into his relatively new job as Mayor Alan Arakawa's top man on planning - arguably at a time when the job is potentially the second-most important position in the county.
Currently, Arakawa's administrators, including Spence, are tasked with completing the Maui Island Plan, a master plan for the next 20 years, and streamlining the permitting process and making it more accessible.
Maui County Planning Director and photography buff Will Spence holds one of his photos of Nuu Bay recently in his Wailuku office.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"I show these to developers who come to see me, to show that there is a price to pay for progress," Spence said during a recent interview.
But that doesn't mean he's against progress, he said.
It just has to be balanced. He said he has seen places he loves destroyed by construction, but also knows how difficult it is to be an out-of-work construction worker.
"I tend to listen differently because I've had these jobs," he said. "I don't think I can be labeled as either pro- or anti-development. As a planner, I have to look at all sides."
And in his personal experience, he's analyzed permit applications and made recommendations for the county; and he's been on the other side, asking for the same thing from someone else in the county on behalf of small developers he represented while in the private sector for eight years before being named planning director.
So, he painstakingly still takes photographs the old-fashioned way - with film. He processes exposed film, projects images onto photographic paper and teases images out of them, mostly for his own edification, at The Hui No'eau Visual Arts Center in Upcountry. His photographs have been called "otherworldly," "ethereal" and thought-provoking by professional reviewers.
Spence said, half jokingly, his second hobby is sleeping.
And with the pressures of being Planning Department director for Maui County it's probably not unreasonable, considering the toll it's taken on some of his predecessors. Don't be fooled, though. That shouldn't be taken to mean he's at all lazy, his proponents say.
Arakawa said one of the reasons he hired Spence and Deputy Director Michele Chouteau McLean is because of their tremendous work ethics. Arakawa and others said they make a perfect team.
The two replaced former Planning Director Kathleen Aoki and her deputy director, Ann Cua. They were in their positions for a few months after their boss, then-Planning Director Jeff Hunt, suddenly left former Mayor Charmaine Tavares' administration and the islands for a similar position on the Mainland to be near his family.
Spence was on the periphery of Arakawa's successful 2010 campaign. Arakawa insisted, though, that Spence won the job only after going through a rigorous search-committee process and finally interviewing with the mayor. The two of them have another history as well - Arakawa was on the County Council when Spence regularly provided advice to the councilors as a senior planner.
"A lot of the ideas he talked about when he was a planner made sense, and he still makes a whole lot of sense," Arakawa said. "He realizes that the system is not perfect, and a lot of adjustments need to be made in the department. We need to change how we develop our plans and interact with the public.
"The major thing people kept saying (during the job interviews) is that he was very good about what he did," the mayor said. "And he was very honest, and you could trust him. Everyone told us he's very open to listening to people and is not bullheaded when he wants something. He listens, does the analysis and makes a decision. He's also a very pleasant person."
It is a high-pressure position, Arakawa said. However, Spence has a rare perspective from outside and inside of the status quo, which makes him unique and well-suited for the job, Arakawa said.
"I also like the fact that I can really trust him," the mayor said.
Spence has a bachelor's degree in urban and regional planning from California State Polytechnic at Pomona, and he served as a Maui County planner from 1992 to 2002.
He's also an entrepreneur who used to have his own small, independent planning consulting firm, The William Spence Co., until he was tapped for this position in December.
He said he's also never forgotten his blue-collar roots as a former carpenter and hotel worker on Maui, along with other Mainland jobs from hospital janitor to factory worker.
When he moved to Maui in 1991, he said, he did whatever he could to stay here after coming from Los Angeles, where he'd drawn up environmental studies for the L.A. subway system.
He's part country boy, too. He grew up in rural San Diego County, where his father was an airline pilot and his mother a homemaker. He said the location of his rural upbringing looks very much like Maui.
He's got another reason to stay now besides holding a challenging new position. He's engaged to Maureen Christensen, he said, declining politely with a gentle laugh after speaking with her to say much else about his personal life. But it was clear from his manner that he is in a happy place in his life.
Spence was a good choice for both environmental groups and developers, said environmentalist and community activist Dick Mayer. He said he particularly appreciates that Spence's private-sector involvement with development did not include the big companies, landowners and controversial projects, which could otherwise unfairly sway another director's choices.
"I think when you watch him at meetings he obviously knows a lot of the rules and regulations and also knows where Maui is going," said Mayer, who also knew Spence when he was a county planner.
"He really understands the problems that homeowners and small-business owners have in improving their projects and getting them through," Mayer said. "He's a person who will listen, and I know a number of people who've gone in to see him and he's given them his time and conscientiousness, too."
Arakawa also said that Spence has a history of community involvement, which was another determining factor in selecting him.
"He's always volunteering to help someone, somehow," Arakawa said. "That's who he is."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.