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Moratorium on visitor lodging advances

Disagreement centers on whether bill is the right tool for overtourism

The AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea undergoes construction in February. On Friday, the Maui County Council passed a bill on first reading that would place a moratorium on visitor accommodations in West and South Maui. It would not apply to projects that already have their final approvals or are doing repairs that don’t change their capacity. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A hotly debated bill that would pause visitor accommodation development in West and South Maui in order to conduct studies on visitor impacts and updates to community plans passed first reading before the Maui County Council on Friday.

The vote was 6-2, with Council Member Kelly King, the bill’s author, voting in favor along with Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Council Members Mike Molina, Shane Sinenci, Tamara Paltin and Gabe Johnson. Council Chairwoman Alice Lee and Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura were opposed, while Council Member Tasha Kama was excused.

Supporters of the bill say Maui has been overwhelmed by tourists, whose arrival numbers have been inching closer to pre-pandemic levels. They’ve cited concerns about visitor impacts to residents’ quality of life, infrastructure and the environment and the need to diversify the economy.

Critics, meanwhile, say studies can be done without a moratorium and that it’s not the time to pause development just as the economy is coming back. They’re also concerned about unintended consequences of the bill and its legality.

The bill would place a moratorium on building permits for hotels and other visitor accommodations in South and West Maui until community plans for both areas are updated or two years have passed, whichever is sooner. The pause will prevent additional air, noise, light, land and water pollution in the meantime, the bill says.

It would also allow the county to implement critical plan action items relating to visitor impacts to the environment and provide the county “with clear policy direction for day-to-day decision making to mitigate climate change and work toward resilience,” the bill says.

The measure would not apply to developments that have received their final approval prior to the bill taking effect, nor would it apply to renovations or repairs at existing visitor accommodations that do not increase capacity.

King noted how quickly tourists have come back to the islands and said the bill is a way for the county to get a handle on tourism.

“When you are in an emergency, you stop the harm,” she said. “This is trying to stop the harm.”

While she agreed with Sugimura that the county can’t stop airlines from bringing visitors to the island, King pointed out that “we do have the authority with building permits.”

Paltin said she would “much rather control our own borders,” but that putting a hold on building permits “is the opportunity that we are given.”

“I don’t think this is the right way to go about it, (but) it’s the only tool we are given in this capacity,” said Paltin, who was voting on the bill for the first time after receiving clearance from the Board of Ethics.

Her husband works in housekeeping in the visitor industry, Paltin told the board on June 9.

Sinenci, who holds the East Maui residency seat, noted that his community has been dealing with overtourism since the 1980s and gave credit to past leaders who put moratoriums on military bases and universities on Maui at a time when Maui lacked the resources.

“This moratorium is in line with past actions of the council,” he said.

“For us in rural Hana, we are at capacity,” Sinenci said. “We don’t have public parking, so we are seeing illegal parking to the point where emergency personnel cannot go through small roads or one-lane bridges. We don’t have enough police coverage because of our small rural community numbers, we lack crosswalks and we lack sidewalks, so a lot of our visitors are in the middle of our streets walking.”

He said Maui is not alone, with places such as Croatia, Machu Picchu and Santorini also experiencing massive tourism numbers, prompting their governments to enact laws to address the problem.

However, Lee, a longtime council member, said the last hotel moratorium passed some 30 years ago when there “was this surge in hotel construction, much more than the gradual increase over the last 20 years.” Today’s circumstances are different, with the county wading through a pandemic “that shredded the economy,” she said.

While people agree on the negative tourism impacts and the need for economic diversification, they disagree on the approach, Lee said.

“That’s why I have a difficult time supporting this moratorium. I don’t think it’s the right tool to fix the situation,” said Lee, who pledged to help find solutions.

Sugimura said she didn’t think a pause on visitor accommodation growth would stop tourism and that “more needs to be done to justify why we need a moratorium.”

“I don’t believe this is going to be the solution,” she said.

Paltin, meanwhile, plans to request an amendment during the bill’s second reading to allow new visitor accommodations by a developer during the moratorium if the developer also provides an equal number of residential workforce housing units. The units would be affordable to families in the “very low-income” or “low-income” categories for at least 30 years. They would be made available for occupancy prior to or concurrent with the new visitor accommodations and would be located in the same community plan area as the new visitor units.

Rawlins-Fernandez has proposed a similar bill to King’s that would maintain the number of current tourist accommodation units on Maui until the council passes legislation implementing recommendations presented by a council-established Tourism Management Temporary Investigative Group, or in two years, whichever is sooner. On Friday the council voted 6-3 to refer the bill to the Maui Planning Commission

Both King and Rawlins-Fernandez have said the intention of the two moratorium measures is for dual passage at the full council.

On Friday, the council also passed a bill on first reading that would require a conditional permit for canopy tour, zipline, bungee jumping and rappelling commercial operations in county agricultural districts.

Council members, who voted 8-0 in favor with Kama excused, have pointed out that there is no conditional permit to regulate these operations. In the past, ziplines have gotten permission to operate as accessory uses on agricultural land. Operations that were not on agricultural land went through other avenues, planning officials said.

In addition to mandating conditional permits, the bill would also establish operating hours and mandate insurance and routine inspections, among other requirements. It would also protect the county from lawsuits that may result from falls or accidents.

The bill was spurred by county scrutiny over some zipline companies and residents who said the operations were negatively impacting their neighborhoods with screams, trespassing and confrontations.

The measure needs a second and final reading.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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