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Council OKs hotel building moratorium

Uncertain whether mayor will veto bill he has opposed

After drawing a high volume of public testimony over weeks of debate, a bill to pause visitor accommodation development in West and South Maui to address over-tourism concerns was approved Friday at the Maui County Council.

“The question is: Who are we listening to? Who are we legislating for? We’re supposed to be creating the policy of the people. And people came out very clearly and said, ‘Yes, this is too much — let’s stop the damage,’ “ Council Member Kelly King, who introduced the bill, said after the meeting. 

The council during its regular meeting Friday voted 6-2 on second and final reading to approve Bill 60, which will place a moratorium on building permits for hotels and other visitor accommodations in South and West Maui until community plans in each area are updated or two years have passed, whichever is sooner.

Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez and Council Members King, Mike Molina, Shane Sinenci, Tamara Paltin and Gabe Johnson voted for the measure. Council Chairwoman Alice Lee and Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura were opposed. Council Member Tasha Kama was excused.

As Maui County experiences some of the highest influx of visitors in the state, Mayor Michael Victorino recently asked that airlines voluntarily reduce airline capacity to the county.

However, the mayor has voiced opposition to Bill 60 as it moved through council hearings. 

The Mayor’s Office declined Friday to say whether the mayor will support the bill or veto it. “Mayor Victorino will study the final version of Bill 60 when it is transmitted to his office and comment after he completes his review of it,” county spokesman Brian Perry said via email.

County Managing Director Sandy Baz during the news conference Friday afternoon said that Bill 60 and mayor’s request to airlines are “different issues.” The request to the airlines would have an immediate impact, and the hotel building moratorium would take much longer to yield results, he said.

“The airlift issue is an immediate issue to deal with tourism as it relates right now — with a hotel building moratorium, we’re talking about a future issue,” Baz said. “Even if the Department of Public Works issued a building permit for a hotel today, we’re not going to have new units for a year or two. It takes a while for construction. So what mayor is looking at doing is trying to address the situation today.”

On Friday evening, King said that she hopes the mayor will collaborate with the council on the measure. She also said that vetoing the bill may send mixed messages about Victorino’s position on over-tourism.

“My gut tells me that he’s smart enough to know that he doesn’t have the votes to veto and have it stand,” she said. “He may just send it back unsigned and let it

become law without a signature.”

Citing the Maui Island Plan’s policy that calls for a daily visitor population not to exceed one-third of the resident population, the purpose of Bill 60 is to “temporarily maintain the status quo.”

The pause would allow the county to find solutions for the visitor industry’s negative impacts and then implement those plans, King has said.

The moratorium 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.

Sugimura has asked how reducing visitor accommodations will yield fewer visitors coming to Maui, noting that visitors cannot be stopped from traveling here. On Friday, she reiterated that she is also concerned about legal aspects of the bill and its implications.

Saying it’s the wrong tool at the wrong time, Lee, who has also been consistently opposed the measure, said on Friday that she would rather focus on finding ways to limit rental cars, use shuttles for mass transit and other “concrete solutions” and “tangible remedies.”

“Don’t forget: We talk about history — I’m the only one that’s been here 30 years ago,” Lee said. “I voted against the extension of the runway. And boy did I get it for it. All kinds of heat came down on me but still I believed in that . . . That stopped a whole bunch of tourists from coming here. But that was legal.”

Council Member Molina acknowledged that he doesn’t like moratoriums — but if nothing is done, the problem will intensify.

“It could be argued that this is a health and safety issue,” he said. “If our community starts to get stressed out due to traffic congestion, quality of life being impacted, you create a whole different kind of mindset. It not only destroys the visitor experience, but then local residents will become resentful.”

About 40 people testified Friday at Maui County Council’s meeting, with more than two dozen of them addressing Bill 60. Many were in support of the moratorium.

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.

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

Also Friday, the council discussed a bill that would require a conditional permit for canopy tour, zipline, bungee jumping and rappelling commercial operations in county agricultural districts. 

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

Although slated for second and final reading, the bill was placed on the County Clerk’s desk due to proposed changes deemed substantive, and will be revisited for second and final reading in two weeks at the next council meeting. It passed first reading with a 8-0 vote.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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