WAILUKU - Department of Planning Director Will Spence said the most immediate and largest challenges ahead of him are finishing Maui's master plan and streamlining the Planning Department.
The Maui Island Plan is expected to be completed by the end of the year, county officials have said. And much of Spence's job in helping the Maui County Council to complete it as part of the General Plan 2030 update involves making a host of recommendations, such as urban-growth boundaries, reviews of various developments and decisions on where businesses will build for the next 20 years.
In addition, he's attempting to fix a slow permitting system that earlier administrations have been unable to reform. But Spence again said he's hopeful that compromises will be reached and significant successes accomplished.
Planning Director Will Spence checks out a map recently in his Wailuku office. In his new position, Spence is overseeing the county’s completion of the Maui Island Plan and carrying out directives to streamline his department’s permitting process.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Mayor Alan Arakawa set a goal for his administration to streamline the permitting process across departments. The bureaucracy involved in even the simplest of projects, such as expanding a home's lanai, is a frequent complaint among residents.
"My philosophy is looking out for the little guy in our permitting process," Spence said as he spoke about how the two major issues converge. "When the zoning codes were adopted in the '60s and '70s, we put into place processes that only the large landowners could afford. It hasn't changed much, and the little guy gets lost in the shuffle. Only the big guys can afford all the consultants it takes now, so as we look at the Maui Island Plan, we can make it easier for the average landowner to get through the process."
And making it easier to do business in Maui County is a must, as long as it's done in a balanced manner that retains the Valley Isle's unique beauty and charms, the mayor and planning director both said.
There is a price we pay, though, for development, Spence said. Part of his job is to haggle the price as low as possible.
"This is an intense job, and when I applied I did so because I saw some real positive things Alan said during the campaign," Spencer said. "He talked about the practical application of things. He said, 'What makes sense here?' He says that a lot."
Spence said his experience in both the private sector as a planning consultant for his own firm, which specialized in small developments, and as a county senior planner for eight years gives him a fresh, inside perspective.
That also should give him an advantage some others previously in his position did not have, Arakawa said.
Spence said he doesn't "think developers are the enemy."
"After all, we live in the houses they build," he said.
But they also always must be responsible for doing the right thing by the environment and be held to a rigorous standard.
"For instance, we make it so difficult to build next to existing urban areas with our laws and policies that it's just easier for a developer to build in an agricultural area," Spence said.
When asked to elaborate, Spence said that when someone wants to "in-fill" an urban area, which is usually preferred by residents to construction on pristine land, those urban empty lots are often within state special management areas, which are set up to protect coastlines. And much of Maui is built on the coast, and building in such an area requires permits and often expensive studies to protect water sources and potential archaeological sites.
Spence said he's not suggesting that anyone do away with special management areas. But he said he just wishes development had been done differently after World War II. The county should have been pressing to keep home developments in compact areas.
"There's nothing wrong with the standard American dream," Spence said. "I just wish there was a greater emphasis on multifamily housing back then."
Ideas about development are changing now, though, he noted. And the county can make it much easier internally for developers and homeowners to navigate the process so they can build next to existing urban areas.
Spence said he isn't against some controversial developments outside of urban areas, with caveats. He supports the Olowalu town development proposal, as long as it's not too large, he said.
He noted that a lot of people used to live in what's now a tiny West Maui community. However, Spence said he would have to look at the latest draft of the plan before commenting further.
"He's made a lot of recommendations on the Maui Island Plan, the majority of which I agree with," said General Plan Advisory Committee member Dick Mayer.
"Some of his decisions I really don't agree with," Mayer said, declining to elaborate because he enjoys working together with Spence and wouldn't want to see the relationship jeopardized.
"He actually lives across the street from me," Mayer said. "I appreciate the way he's made his recommendations, and he's active about getting the plan passed by the deadlines before the end of the year."
As for streamlining, Arakawa said he's already seen progress in Spence's department. His employees are friendlier to applicants and the general public. For instance, during a recent stop by his office, staffers were quick to say hello, smile and guide a visitor directly to Spence through the office's warren of cubicles.
They also will guide someone through the permitting system, both leaders said.
Spence said he and Arakawa agree that the best way to rectify the system immediately is to use common sense to instill internal changes - while always abiding closely to the law.
Some laws will have to be changed in consultation with the County Council, he said. Planning Department staffers are preparing possible solutions to present to the council.
Streamlining the department, which is a standing order for all county departments and agencies from Arakawa, most likely will require alterations to the zoning code, such as establishing new business and industrial districts, as well as changes to the department's procedural rules.
Some of those changes are already being done internally, Spence said, by reducing the amount of paperwork for applicants while continuing to follow the law.
One of their primary goals will be, as an example, to simplify short-term rental, or transient vacation rental, permits for residential properties outside of the designated hotel and resort districts, he said. But the legislation has sat untouched for more than a year in the council's Planning Committee while committee members have discussed the overriding General Plan 2030 and accompanying Maui Island Plan.
And it looks like it will be a while before the County Council has time to review vacation rentals again.
The past administration cracked down on unpermitted transient accommodations, but it did pass a bed-and-breakfast legalization ordinance with the County Council.
Spence said he would like to see the vacation rental situation resolved.
"The public deserves consistent enforcement and should not be afraid to get a permit or become legal or to report a problem with a (troublesome) short-term rental," he said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.