The Public Land Development Corporation, formed to spur use of the state’s lands, and in the process create revenue, has generated controversy since its mission and broad exemptions from county-level regulations began to be digested last summer.
Residents who crammed public hearings on its proposed administrative rules have cast it as a villain out to sell the aina, rather than the economic development tool promoted by its supporters in the Legislature.
The Hawaii County Council, Kauai County Council and Hawaii State Association of Counties have also weighed in, joining a growing chorus of critics requesting its abolishment over exemptions they say take away local oversight and home rule.
The public dialogue may have formed differently if it wasn’t for a House Water, Land and Ocean Resources meeting held March 18, 2011. At the meeting, exemptions for zoning and land-use laws were added to the legislation that created the PLDC. These exemptions have been a lightning rod for criticism over the past three months.
The exemptions, which made little if any fanfare at the time, were proposed by state Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila and received unanimous support from the committee, which included four Big Island representatives: Jerry Chang, chair; Denny Coffman, Robert Herkes and Mark Nakashima.
In his written testimony, Aila said he felt the agency, to act as a “development arm” for DLNR, would be ineffective and merely serve as an “additional organizational layer” if those exemptions ‚ “afforded to Hawaiian Home Lands, the Agribusiness Development Corporation and Hawaii Community Development Corporation‚” did not apply.
“Without such relief, the new corporation will not have the development advantages of the other special development corporations and agencies and face the same development impediments that the Department currently faces,” he wrote.
Several committee members in interviews said they agreed with that assessment, and criticized zoning and land use regulations for being too burdensome.
At the same time, they disagreed with the criticism that the act wrestled local control from counties or nullifies public input.
“It’s the biggest impediment in getting the PLDC to work effectively,” Chang said, referring to county-level land use rules.
Nakashima, D-Hamakua, Hilo, said he is surprised by the backlash, noting the exemptions are the same granted to other public development agencies.
“I think a lot of that is a misunderstanding regarding what the actual impact of that language is,” he said.
Nakashima acknowledged that the exemptions “doesn’t sound right,” but he believes the development process needs to be streamlined.
South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford, one of the more outspoken critics of the PLDC on the council, said simply leaving permit approval with a county’s Planning Department is not enough to provide for local oversight.
Without zoning or land use regulations applying, she worries that development, particularly on state-owned shorelines, would occur with little control.
“My belief is each island should be in charge of designing their own destiny and this strips away home rule for each island,” Ford said.
“I’m not opposed to smart development,” Ford said. “This is not smart development.”
For Herkes, the outgoing Democrat representing Puna, Ka‘u and Kona, the measure is about creating jobs.
“I think we need to create some jobs and some economic development,” Herkes said. “And I think we have to get rid of the over-regulatory aspects that make it difficult to do that.”
Of the four isle representatives who voted to add the exemptions, Coffman is the only one who thinks it was a bad decision.
The Kailua-Kona Democrat said he didn’t realize what was in the committee’s amendment, saying it went “under the radar” for him.
He has since called for its repeal.
“I just don’t think the state should be in the business of trying to develop land to make money,” he said.
Coffman attributed the oversight to his own busy legislative duties, saying he relied too much on the recommendations of the committee chair.
Groups opposed to the PLDC, such as the Sierra Club, also say they were caught off guard by its formation.
Throughout its three-month-long consideration in the Legislature, testimony was largely directed at the bill’s second purpose, to allow commercial use permits for vessels at Ala Wai and Keehi harbors.
The exemptions were added almost two months before the bill’s final approval, though it occurred in the second to last committee meeting.
After the protests started, the PLDC has made some changes to its proposed rules, including removing for now a section on the procedures for financing infrastructure improvements for projects.
A public hearing on the changes to the draft rules will be held today in Honolulu.
Nakashima said he is open to making changes to the PLDC but thinks repeal goes too far.