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Groups file lawsuit to challenge power of county agency

The Maui News

Two community groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the powers of a county agency that oversees the zoning and development rules of Wailuku town.

The Wailuku Good Government Coalition and Maui Tomorrow Foundation filed the lawsuit in 2nd Circuit Court on Monday in hopes of stopping the Maui Redevelopment Agency from adopting new zoning laws that the groups fear would alter the town.

“Most people agree that the historic character and charm of Wailuku need to be carefully preserved,” said John Baker, a Wailuku attorney and member of the Wailuku Good Government Coalition. “We are concerned that the changes the MRA is considering will destroy the heart and soul of Wailuku town, undermine truly affordable housing, and allow the already overgrown visitor industry to expand into one of the last refuges for local residents on Maui.”

Late last year, the agency held meetings to consider raising permitted building heights in Wailuku from four to six stories. While the agency had been mulling those and other changes for more than a year, community concern spiked after residents learned of a proposal by local landowners for a six-story, 156-room Hilton Garden Inn near the corner of Market and Main streets.

Many testifiers opposed the changes, saying they didn’t want to see Wailuku become another Honolulu. Others also expressed concern about “a group of unelected planners and developers” making important planning calls. The agency tabled the issue and said a decision likely wouldn’t come until this year.

In a news release Monday, the two groups said that the agency “purports to exist because of the 1949 Urban Renewal Law adopted by the Territorial Legislature, which made it easier for government to redevelop urban areas.” At the time, Maui was governed by a hybrid legislative/executive body called the Board of Supervisors, and the county existed because of statutes adopted by the Territorial Legislature. But after the constitution adopted in 1950 took effect following statehood, each county was allowed to adopt a charter for its own county governance.

Attorney Lance Collins, who is representing the groups along with attorney Bianca Isaki, pointed out that the 1968 Constitution Convention and a 1978 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling helped establish that matters of county government structure were beyond the state’s reach and that any conflicting charter provisions were superior to state statutes.

Collins explained that general state laws — minimum wage and civil service law, for example — take precedence over county laws, but that the county has authority over its own structure and allocation of powers.

That being said, the Maui County Charter requires proposed laws related to planning or land use to go before the planning commissions and then to the council for two readings, said Albert Perez, Maui Tomorrow Foundation’s executive director.

“On the contrary, the MRA provides no such review for proposed planning or land use laws, and its plans are subject to only limited review by the council,” Perez said. “This violates the County Charter and the will of voters.”

Perez said that the groups are asking the court to prevent the agency “from exercising zoning and variance powers that the charter reserves for the County Council and the Board of Variances and Appeals.”

“The MRA does not have the power to take the proposed actions, which would be illegal, and would go against the democratic and home rule spirit of our county government,” said Michael Williams, president of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation.

Maui County spokesman Brian Perry said Monday that the county has “no comment on this pending litigation.”

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