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Council may find it appropriate to consider dissolving the MRA

COUNCIL'S 3 MINUTES

Seventy years after the now-defunct Territorial Legislature enacted the Urban Renewal Law and 55 years after the now-defunct Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution establishing the County of Maui Redevelopment Agency to study blighted areas and to recommend areas for redevelopment, it’s well past time to revisit the intention of the legislation creating the MRA and determine if the agency is functioning appropriately.

Earlier this year, the County Council’s Economic Development and Budget Committee, which I chair, recommended authorizing council Chairwoman Kelly King to contract for an audit of the Maui Redevelopment Agency. Committee Report 19-67 quoted the following from the county website:

“The Maui Redevelopment Agency, also known as the MRA, reviews applications for new development and renovation projects in the Wailuku Redevelopment Area as authorized by . . . the Urban Renewal Law. The Wailuku Redevelopment Area covers approximately 68 acres and includes the business blocks from Central Avenue to High Street, and Wells Street to Vineyard Street. The redevelopment area extends the length of Market Street from Wells through Happy Valley to where Kahekili Highway begins.”

On July 5, the council adopted Resolution 19-120, entitled “Authorizing the Council Chair to Contract for a Fiscal and Performance Audit of the Maui Redevelopment Agency,” by a 7-0 vote. I recommend that the audit should examine the true nature of the MRA’s legal function and authority.

Concerns about the MRA and its authority aren’t new. Indeed, the Wailuku-Kahului Community Plan, approved in 2002, urged the county government to take the following action:

“Re-evaluate the composition, role and boundaries of the Wailuku Redevelopment Agency to support its mission for the revitalization and enhancement of this district and explore ways to coordinate planning for Wailuku Town.”

But there is new sense of urgency as the MRA prepares to rewrite the Wailuku Redevelopment Area Zoning and Development Code to allow for high-rise commercial development (The Maui News, “Residents oppose Wailuku building height increase,” Nov. 16). Residents say some of the MRA’s plans defy the community plan’s top objective for the county seat, “Maintain the existing character of historic Wailuku Town.”

What is zoning? State law says it’s the establishment or regulation of land-use districts “to allow and encourage the most beneficial use of the land.” Zoning ordinances may dictate “the location of buildings and structures designed for specific uses” and “the location, height, bulk, number of stories and size of buildings.”

The Legislature never intended an unelected body like the MRA to have authority over zoning code changes. Section 46-4 of Hawaii Revised Statutes says zoning power “shall be exercised by ordinance.”

In interpreting zoning authority under state law, the Supreme Court of Hawaii concluded in 2003 that “rezoning is a legislative function,” in the words of Justice Simeon Acoba’s opinion in Save Sunset Beach Coalition v. City & County of Honolulu. That case recognized the state constitutional principle that matters related to the structure of county government were beyond the reach of state statute.

The MRA doesn’t contend it has the power to enact ordinances. But it does contend that its administrative rules have the same effect for Wailuku town as zoning ordinances.

The Urban Renewal Law mentions zoning, saying that an urban renewal plan should indicate “zoning and planning changes, if any,” necessary to carry out the plan. But it doesn’t grant zoning authority to redevelopment agencies, and, even if it did, that would directly conflict with the Maui County Charter, which clearly dictates the council holds the county’s legislative power.

I propose the council take a closer look at the county’s originally envisioned purpose for creating the MRA, embodied in Resolution 54 in 1964, and determine if the agency has already accomplished that intended mission.

The council may find it appropriate to consider dissolving the MRA if its purpose has been met, or perhaps revising Resolution 00-151, which approved the MRA’s Wailuku Redevelopment Plan.

Unlike appointed MRA members, elected council members are directly accountable to the public. And we are listening.

* Keani Rawlins-Fernandez is chair of the council’s Economic Development and Budget Committee. She holds the council seat for the Molokai residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.