This article was published originally on Dec. 24, 2019, in The Maui News.
A major rewrite of Maui County’s zoning code could yield more housing — if done right.
“Done right” means simplifying the code and removing red tape, which were major recommendations in a 2018 audit performed by Orion Planning + Design.
Specifically, the audit recommended that Maui policymakers “create a simplified, hybrid code,” — which presumably would give homebuilders greater certainty and flexibility — and “promote housing choice and affordability.”
The audit also recommended that regulatory barriers to more housing be identified and removed, and the range of housing options “permitted by right” be increased, which could help homebuilders escape from Maui’s maze of outdated regulations.
Maui policymakers eager to follow up on those and other recommendations might want to take a look at a so-called housing toolkit produced by the national State Policy Network, titled “How to Build Affordable, Thriving Neighborhoods.” Written by five housing experts from across the nation, the toolkit provides more than 50 policy options that would generate more housing, including:
• Publish preapproved plans, so homebuilders could spend less time guessing and more time building.
• Legalize older buildings that no longer conform to the current zoning code. This would make it easier to build and improve more of the types of buildings that give Maui its charm.
• Reduce political approvals. If a project complies with existing zoning, it should require no more than a Planning Department approval and the necessary building permits to proceed, not a vote or approval from elected officials.
• Remove restrictions on the number of kitchens or occupants allowed in housing units, and allow subdivisions, so more people can live together.
• Increase height limits to allow for more housing units.
• Allow corner stores in residential neighborhoods, and multifamily residences in commercial or business districts. This would allow people to use the land for commercial or housing, depending on their needs.
• Reduce parking requirements, which are implicit subsidies for parking at the expense of other land uses. Lessen these requirements for new buildings.
• Seek out conditional uses that are commonly granted, and make them automatically granted “by right” to reduce bureaucratic burden.
• Hold public hearings at the high-level comprehensive planning stage, as opposed to the individual-project level, since existing homeowners tend to oppose projects near them, and would-be renters, who tend not to be represented, often lose out. Keeping public engagement at the highest level, but not necessarily at the individual-project level, would help much-needed housing projects already in compliance to move forward.
• Focus high-level comprehensive planning sessions on increasing zoning density in anticipation of demand, so new developments would not have to go through an extensive approval process.
• Get rid of minimum lot-size requirements, and end single-family-only zoning, so individuals can choose the type of housing they want to build and live in, whether it be tiny homes or apartment buildings.
• Allow neighbors to increase the density of their own city blocks and waive boundary rules, if they so choose.
• Speed up the permitting process by using private contractors to perform building permit application review.
• Allow more creative options for homeless, such as waiving building requirements for temporary homeless shelters, particularly since Maui’s own policies stand in the way of low-cost housing.
There are many other policy-reform ideas in the toolkit that could be used to help loosen Maui’s overly strict home building regulations — and none of them would require extra taxpayer dollars or more bureaucracy.
Considering the need for more housing throughout Maui, Molokai and Lanai, Maui County policymakers need to update the county’s zoning code so more locals can afford to live in the islands.
* Joe Kent is executive vice president of Honolulu-based Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a ìnonprofit public policy think tank that seeks to educate people about the values of individual liberty, economic freedom and accountable government,î according to its website.