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Panel at odds over proposed visitor lodging moratorium

Members vote to recommend denial and back different version

After many hours of public testimony, panel discussion and a split vote, the Maui Planning Commission moved Tuesday on a highly debated proposal to pause new visitor transient accommodations in an effort to curb overtourism.

The panel in a 6-2 vote recommended denial of the Maui County Council’s bill while recommending approval of the county Planning Department’s version of it, with revisions. Commissioners Christian Tackett and Jerry Edlao dissented, and Mel Hipolito was absent and excused.

The move followed a split vote on a motion by Edlao to flat-out deny recommendation of the council’s bill.

The measure will eventually be heard in council’s Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee.

Nearly 20 public testifiers spoke Tuesday during the commission meeting, with slightly more than half supporting a moratorium on new transient accommodations. Comments echoed months of passionate public debate on hotel moratoria that coincided with a strong rebound in visitor arrivals.

July’s domestic arrivals to Maui reached an all-time high of 286,851 — breaking the previous record of 279,368 set in July 2019, according to state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Supporters of a ban on increasing transient units pointed Tuesday to depleted island resources, such as water and infrastructure, along with unfettered visitor and construction industries that will not limit themselves.

Hotel and construction lobbyists, along with a handful of others, opposed the moratorium Tuesday, saying it won’t stop visitors — the measure will merely hurt hard-hit industries and local jobs. Some said it will have unintended consequences, such as fueling illegal visitor accommodations that will further displace residents in their neighborhoods.

During the commission item that ran from about 9:30 a.m. until nearly 4 p.m., members were divided over how to proceed.

Tackett pushed hard against the moratorium, saying that it will hurt local jobs and will take power away from the Planning Commission, which is thorough in vetting each project proposal. The panel handles projects ranging from new hotels to small bed-and-breakfasts and business expansions.

“You are going to be able to decide yes or no — once you moratorium it, it’s just done — you guys are just out of the loop,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like you are going to get those rights back, you are going to give up your rights today, and then legislation is going to come in and you’re going to get whatever rights back that they give you. I would be cautious about giving up your stuff.”

However, commissioner Kimberly Thayer said that the visitor industry has shown it has enough units to accommodate high volumes of people, so placing a pause for two years on new applications doesn’t seem like it would “reportedly kill so much industry.”

“Why do we need to rush further investment in an industry that we know is unstable?” she asked. If “75 percent of private sector jobs are reliant indirectly or directly on the visitor industry, is the goal to be 100 percent?”

Introduced by Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins Fernandez in June, the council proposal would place a moratorium on new transient accommodations — including hotels, timeshares, short-term rental homes and transient vacation rental units — across the island of Maui.

The proposal follows Bill 60, another moratorium on visitor accommodations that generated strong public support but was eventually vetoed by Mayor Michael Victorino, a decision that council allowed to stand in part due to possible legal loopholes.

This moratorium, though, would maintain the number of current tourist accommodation units until the council passes legislation implementing recommendations by a council-established Tourism Management Temporary Investigative Group, or in two years with the possibility to extend six months, whichever is sooner.

There are currently 24,425 total visitor lodging units, according to the county’s Real Property Assessment Division, which was cited in Tuesday’s meeting.

County Administrative Planning Officer Jacky Takakura presented five revisions from the department, which strengthened the way to verify use for the transient accommodation, made exceptions for existing and nonconforming uses, gave exceptions for projects providing affordable housing, detailed mitigation measures for sea level rise areas and asked that building code be revised to align with the prohibition of building permits.

She also discussed applicable portions of the county’s long-range plans, including the Countywide Policy Plan and the Maui Island Plan.

“It’s hard to say the moratorium is inconsistent with the long-term plans of the county,” Takakura said.

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

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