Hawaii County official upbeat about island’s housing future

Homebuilding on Hawaii island entails many challenges, but the county’s planning director is upbeat about the future.

From a Hawaii County perspective, we’re solving [the problems] as fast as we can,” said Zendo Kern, who was appointed to the planning director job nearly two years ago. “When we first came in for affordable housing, we had around 400 units or so in the pipeline. Now, we have closer to 5,000 units in the pipeline. … Granted, … they’re not all built yet, but what we’re seeing is a push towards that.”

Kern was the guest on the Aug. 16 episode of “Hawaii Together,” hosted by Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Kent said initially he had hoped to talk with Kern about Hawaii’s permitting problems, but realized later that, unlike Honolulu County, planning and permitting on Hawaii island are each handled by separate departments. 

Kent and Kern did, however, touch briefly on the county’s building permit backlog, as well as the recently created Electronic Processing and Information Center, which was established to quickly resolve the problem but so far has failed to do so.

Kern outlined several reasons for its inability to quickly resolve the situation — including a new building code and the “great resignation” — but in general, he said, progress is being made. 

“What I’m seeing over there,” he said, “is this diligent effort that, ‘Hey, we know that it isn’t the way that we want it to be right now. We got it. Here’s what we’re going to do to continue to move forward.’ And so I’m seeing that happen.”

On the housing issue, Kern noted that public hearings for new housing project tend to be dominated by “Not In My Backyard” folks. Worse, the “backyard” in question is “turning into the entire island. So, ‘Not on our island, period,’” he said.

He said too often the folks who need the housing cannot afford to be at the hearings: “These are folks working as hard as they can to put food on the table … trying to get their kids to school … trying to provide for their family, and oftentimes, they don’t have time to show up to a public hearing at 10 o’clock in the morning or 11 o’clock.”

He said if these people, such as millennials and Generation Zs, do not show up to support more housing, “it’s really tricky because the folks that sit there as a volunteer commissioner, as a [County] Council member, you hear what’s in front of you [the NIMBYs], and it sounds like, “No. No. No. We don’t want it.” 

Kern said adding certainty to the permitting process is critical.

Like when you see a 201H, an affordable housing project, and they ask for all these variances — why do they have to go through that process to get the variances? If it’s an affordable project, shouldn’t that just be baked into our code? Shouldn’t you just select from the menu and say, ‘That’s what I’m doing.’? … Certainty is the big deal.,” he said. “You gotta have a level of certainty if we want housing.”

Ultimately, he said, “My side just wants to make sure that our children have the opportunity to stay here and come back home if they want to.” And housing, Kern said, “is one of the essential elements” in that happening.

To see the entire interview, click on the video below. A complete transcript is provided.

8-16-22 Joe Kent hosts Zendo Kern, Hawaii County planning director, on “Hawaii Together”

Joe Kent: Aloha, and welcome to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcasting network. I’m Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, filling in for Dr. Keli‘i Akina. He’s the president of our Institute and the host of this program normally. 

Today, we’re talking about easing barriers to housing on the Big Island. The Grassroot Institute, we often talk about housing all over the state and all the barriers to housing, but we want to zero in today on the Big Island.

And our guest today is Zendo Kern, he’s the Hawaii County planning director. So thanks so much for being with us, Zendo. We look forward to learning a lot more about the Big Island and housing. 

Zendo Kern: Hi, Joe. Great to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to share.

Kent: Thank you. So how long have you been the county’s planning director? And what’s your background?

Kern: Sure. I became the planning director just about a year and three quarters ago. The [Mitch] Roth administration came in at the end of 2020 in December, so we hit the ground running. 

My background is I’m born and raised here on the Big Island. Actually, born on the west side, grew up on the east side. I have over 22 years of experience in land use, real estate development and in and out of government. So came into it with more in the development, constructing, how to put it together, moved into land use and entitlements.

Then I had the opportunity to actually chair the Windward Planning Commission for a couple years. Also had the opportunity to serve as a County Council member, chaired the planning committee there. 

From there, I moved more into specifically land-use entitlements, consulting, both in and out of projects, but kind of on the other side of the desk, helping people navigate the process to create housing. 

I’ve had multiple businesses. So I kind of have a general real estate business [background], in and out of public service. so that’s more or less it. 

Then I decided to see what I could do and serve our county as the planning director, which has been a really awesome opportunity.

Kent: So you’ve been involved in housing on the Big Island for a long time, it sounds like, and even living in housing on the Big Island, growing up here and everything. So what exactly does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?

Kern: Yeah, being the planning director is a really serious job. We have six different divisions. We deal with anything from short-range land-use matters such as a setback variance to a subdivision all the way through to discretionary permits, like a change of zone or a change of land-use boundary amendment, SMA approvals, special permits. 

Then we move into long-range planning, like shoreline setback studies, general plan studies, really trying to tackle the climate change, and all of those factors.

In addition, we have a West Hawaii office. We have offices on both sides. I also am in charge of the Kilauea recovery efforts from the 2018 Kilauea eruption, that’s the sixth division. It’s really all planning from short-range to long-range. 

We deal with building permits, but not to the same extent that other counties do that. We’ll probably get into it a little bit more later.

Kent: I see. Well, when we were originally trying to queue up this episode, we were really thinking a lot about permits, along with many other issues on the Big Island. And it’s kind of funny that the Big Island doesn’t actually have its planning department in charge of the permitting primarily. Where on the other counties, the planning department is in charge of permitting. That’s probably something that gets confusing to a lot of people.

Kern: It is confusing. It’s confusing for the general public. It’s extra confusing for people that are coming straight from Oahu or Maui. 

So the way it works here is the building division is housed underneath the Department of Public Works. There’s a separate division. They have their own building chief in the building divisions. They come through, and then we review the permits from a land-use perspective. 

Just to give you an idea, when I first came into this position, the Planning Department’s review of the permits was taking around three months. About four months into the process, we got our review time for building permits down to around three days, and we’ve been holding true to that ever since. So when it hits the Planning Department, it’s generally smooth and efficient. We try to do a good job of communicating with our constituents.

Kent: I see, I see. Well, that’s important because permitting apparently takes a long time on all the islands across the state. So anything that can make it quicker is good. 

Now, we’ll talk a little bit more about that, but I wanted to just zoom out and look at the big picture on the Big Island. When you just look across the Big Island, what is the picture regarding housing? How difficult is it to build there?

Kern: You know, building housing is difficult here, obviously. It’s underscored. We have lots of challenges, lots of regulations. 

What happens, though, is we have compounded effects over time. And these compounded different elements, from having actual units like, say, the land entitlements, the actual subdivisions ready to go or the zoning in place to do that, because you got to have all of the land-use side of it, all of your permits ready to go before it’s shovel-ready. 

So previously, many years past, there was a lot of developers that would come in and I call it cradle to grave. They would take a piece of land, they would go through the entitlement process all the way through to being able to actually get legitimate permits to put in the infrastructure to build the subdivision, and then build the houses and go vertical. 

Over time, things have changed. You have people that specialize more in land-use entitlements, and then you have people that specialize more in the vertical construction or people that want things to be shovel-ready. Very different mindsets and approaches.

And so both sides of it we’re challenged with here. There has been a real shortage of actual zoned entitled units. What happens is they actually have time conditions based on them, so they actually have to do something within X period of years. 

Then, if you hit a bad market cycle or an off-market cycle, it comes back down. Next thing you know, they’re coming in for these entitlements, but then they’re forced to go through the whole discretionary permitting process again.

So one of the things that we’re really focused on is trying to. … what I can focus on, anyways, is really the land-use side of it, the entitlement side of it, to get things so it’s clear and concise. If you’re in the area that we want it to be, that’s where it should be. 

We still have to make sure that there’s checks and balances, that it respects the environment, respects the culture, etc., and the sense of place, but it should be a lot smoother to get through that.

Kent: Across the state, by the way, if you’re just talking about land use, you’ve got the state Land Use Commission, and you have all these different layers of regulation, from the state level to the county level. 

But just at the state level — and, of course, we have 5% of the land which is zoned or designated as urban with few exceptions. [which] is the only zone that really allows homebuilding for regular people; you know, low-rise apartments, neighborhoods or close-knit housing, and things like that.

Now, on the Big Island, the urban zone is only 2% of the island. So that’s a very small percentage of the whole island. Has anyone in the county government ever talked about increasing the amount of land that’s available for more housing?

Kern: Yeah, that’s actually a discussion that we have quite a bit. And I think it’s being underscored right now. Two elements with that, as you say, is that there’s this underlying state land use designation, right? And the county’s authority to change that goes up to 15 acres.

Kent: If it’s 16 acres, then the state has to do that, right?

Kern: Correct. And it actually goes through our process all the way through the Planning Commission, and then up to the state Land Use [Commission] for their consideration on it. And it adds another layer of challenge — another layer of bureaucracy, if you will — another layer of uncertainty. 

And my understanding is, many years back, the state Land Use Commission would do more boundary district amendments, right? So they come into an area and say, “This area is poised for growth. Let’s look at a large swath and actually just go ahead and do that boundary amendment to urban, you know, to set the field up to, then play out on the county zoning.” 

I haven’t seen that happen for a number of years. And last year, we worked on some legislation to help with that. That was a challenge.

Kent: Right. Last year, I remember HB 1840 would have allowed the county decision-making officials to amend the district boundary amendments to allow land for greater areas than 15 acres. So just like you were talking about, you could change it to 50 acres — five-zero — but there were some conditions on that too; at least 60% of the land had to be dedicated to affordable housing. 

And Grassroot Institute — our organization — actually testified on the bill twice in the House, but then it died quietly in the Senate. So can you talk a little bit about that policy proposal and that bill? Would that have helped the housing situation?

Kern: Yeah, I believe it would have helped the housing situation. So knowing that there’s a growing evolution of county and its authority, right? So maybe 20 years ago, the LUC, the state Land Use Commission, kind of having that overview was critical. I feel though now the counties have really grown into their own. 

So we wanted to look at it and say, “Hey, we should have the authority to be able to do up to, say, the 50 acres,” which is actually consistent with our project district, which is just our project district zoning really allows for that kind of TOD mixed-use, live-work-play development. So I thought linking those two up would make sense. 

And also wanted to link it up to the 60% affordable housing. And the reason for that is we want to ensure people this is really towards getting affordable housing. Give us this opportunity to show that we can actually administer this well. And as we do, then let’s open up that conversation for maybe just more authority on our end. 

There were some concerns around that from various parties, and unfortunately, it didn’t make it through.

I’m going to approach it again this year. I’m going to adjust some of the strategies, re-have the conversation and try to better articulate the need for this, as well as the land-use regulations and policies that we have in place. Because a lot of people get concerned or fearful. “Oh, you’re going to allow that to happen. They’re going to do it anywhere.” 

That’s not the case. It has to meet our general plan, it has to meet our community development plans, which really say this is the only area you can do it mwithin our urban growth boundary areas, right? 

So that’s the goal, is to bring that back up and hopefully be honored with the ability to actually help solve some of our island’s challenges.

Kent: Also, there are, like, six layers of housing regulation, you know, at the state level and the county level. So when we talk about removing one of the layers, that still leaves five layers of regulation. And a lot of those layers can be duplicative at the county level, and you’re basically doing a lot of the same stuff that they look at the state level when it comes to land-use designations, right?

Kern: That’s right. Actually, a lot of it is the exact same. And a lot of it kind of relates to conditions that we impose on those applications. So the goal is to take the feedback from all the various agencies as we do — whether that’s the Department of Education or Department of Transportation, Department of Health, in condition that the project, so they have to comply with these, so it creates community, right? And that’s kind of the concern. But I think we’re all, I don’t know, I feel like Hawaii County has had its time to actually be allowed to do that.

Kent: I see. It’s interesting to me. I used to live on the Big Island, actually, in Honomu, and I have family in Paradise Park right now. And Paradise Park, the way I remember it, is one-acre lots with single-family homes on there. Is that ag land, and is the reason that they’ve made that all one-acre lots to comply with the zoning code? Or is that urban? How does that work?

Kern: Yeah, so HPP — Hawaii Paradise Park — I believe it’s the second largest subdivision in the United States, if not the world. It’s huge. 

And so what happened is, that subdivision was actually put in right before all of the laws came into place in the late 1960s. And what it is, is it’s actually state land-use agriculture and county-zoned ag.

But the reality of it is is that is not consistent with the settlement pattern out there. What’s consistent with that settlement pattern is really a state land-use for rural, and the zoning could still be ag or the zoning could be residential ag, but the underlying state land-use of rural. … So [let me] put it to you this way: We live in a rural community. I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re rural; 0.003% of our island is zoned rural, 837 acres.

So the goal that we have underneath our general plan is to say, “OK, this area is urban. Top could still be ag or residential ag, and maybe tighter density from there.” But we’d look at that. But, really trying to bring some of these areas into play. 

I have subdivisions that are actually 12,000-square-foot lots that are state land-use ag and county-zoning ag. And the neighbors are like, “Why can’t my neighbor have all these chickens on a 10,000-square-foot lot?” Well, because we kind of need to do some housekeeping on that.

So we have two kinds of issues that are going on. We have some housekeeping issues on some existing, and then, we also really need to start really taking the field that we have — this canvas, if you will — and paint what we want there, but to get the regulations so they’re actually ready to move forward.

Kent: And if housing projects can’t get through because of the zoning, maybe it’s zoned ag and we could put more houses there if it wrtr zoned urban. If that doesn’t happen, then what we’re hearing from developers is that they just shrug their shoulders and say, “OK, then we’ll just build a mansion, or we’ll build high-end housing. We’ll build one very expensive house on an acre.” 

And so, can you speak a little bit to that? Is the unintended consequence of all this regulation?

Kern: Yeah, that’s a big one. It’s a lot easier for folks just to go get a building permit. They’re entitled to it. It’s a right for them to do it versus actually creating that density. And so we see two things occur frequently. 

One is, “Screw it, I’m just going to build a big old house on it and call it a day.” And somebody gets a big old house. The other thing we see is basically reverse-engineering it to meet the most minimum standards.

So say a project that would allow for 100 units, well, they bring it back down to, say, only doing 40 units, because then it’s a different wastewater requirement, [and] various other requirements that are lesser. Now it makes sense because, even at 100 units, they don’t actually pencil out well because of the infrastructure. 

So one of the big issues, we have all of these governmental regulations, but infrastructure is huge. It is one of the biggest impediments that we have: water and wastewater. 

And as a county, we’re looking to actually focus on where we want that to be and provide that, so then the person coming in that could do 100 units has infrastructure to hook up to. And now they’re incentivized to do the 100 units versus reversing it back to the minimum, because they can’t afford this huge CAPEX [capital expense] to bring in all that infrastructure, if that makes sense. It’s going to take both sides coming together.

Kent: I see. Well, we’re going to take a short break. This is “Hawaii Together” and we’re talking to Zendo Kern. More in a minute.


Kent: Aloha, and welcome back to “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii broadcasting network. I’m Joe Kent filling in for Dr. Keli’i Akina. And we are talking with Zendo Kern, who is the county planning director on the Big Island, on Hawaii island.

And so, Zendo, when we were originally preparing this episode, we had some questions about permitting. And since the Planning Department deals with permitting in the other counties, it doesn’t do that on the Big Island, we are shifting our interview to not talk so much about permitting. But I did want to get your take, because on Hawaii Island, permitting is a big issue. We’ve got a huge backlog. 

There’s a new system — the EPIC system, which is the Electronic Processing and Information Center — that’s supposed to cut through the congestion, but it still seems to have hit somewhat of a snag. Do you have any comment about how that process is going?

Kern: Yeah, I do. And I’ve been right there with DPW in the building division this entire time. 

When we launched the EPIC system, it was launched for both the Planning Department as well as the Building Department. So we’re operating off the same electronic permitting system essentially. 

And so two things happened with the Building Department. They came in with a new building code, as well as the EPIC system, at the same time. Anytime you have a code shift, you usually have a glut of permits that come in and ramp that up, so that didn’t help.

You know, one of the things we’ve seen a big challenge with is the “great resignation.” Really getting qualified folks to work within the department has been challenging. 

Now, getting the building permit system so it’s smooth and efficient is one of Mayor Roth’s top priorities. And so, what we’ve seen through this as working through the glut, working through the challenges, we need to bring in somebody else.

So they brought in an outside consultant, Jim Penner, who’s doing a full-on eval [evaluation] of the process and system to give us his best practices and suggestions on some adjustments to be made. He’s been in counties that had a time that wasn’t acceptable, and he’s brought it into a time that is acceptable. 

So what I’m seeing over there is this diligent effort that, “Hey, we know that it isn’t the way that we want it to be right now. We got it. Here’s what we’re going to do to continue to move forward.” And so I’m seeing that happen.

Granted, none of it’s fast enough — the time that we’re in, and we all know that — but I will say that they’re aware of it and diligently making the effort, and I see it coming from Mayor Roth. You can tell he’s just like, “We gotta get this thing moving.” So I’m seeing progress.

Kent: OK, well, thanks for that. We’re looking at permitting on all the other islands too. And it just seems like there’s a backlog on all the islands, and so we’re all trying to do it. Well, we would love to talk about that further on another episode, but today, I want to talk about other. … because permitting is just one piece of the puzzle. There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle. And one is public hearing.

In Hawaii, we have many, many public hearings often that are required for housing projects. Often, if you want to rezone a land from agriculture to urban, you need a public hearing. But when that happens, you’ve got a lot of groups that come out and say, “Not in my backyard. Build somewhere else.” 

And so those groups are called the NIMBYs — Not In My Backyard. But sometimes there’s lots of people who don’t even get to weigh in on projects, who might very much want the housing. So can you talk about how that process plays out on the Big Island?

Kern: Yeah. I think it’s playing out to similar with what you’re seeing. We do have a tremendous amount of public hearings, Then we go through a Planning Commission hearing, then through a County Council hearing. And what we’re seeing is a lot of folks show up that say, “Not in my backyard.” And what I’m also seeing is it’s turning into the entire island, so, “Not on our island, period.”

And that’s challenged when you look at the folks that couldn’t show up at those meetings, right? 

What I try to think about — and I thought about this a lot as a County Council member because you’re elected there to make tough decisions — and so I always need to think about who isn’t present. 

And these are folks that are working as hard as they can to put food on the table, they’re trying to get their kids to school, they’re trying to provide for their family, and oftentimes, they don’t have time to show up to a public hearing at 10 o’clock in the morning or 11 o’clock.

So I’m trying to encourage folks to do that, especially the millennials and Gen Zs. I mean, this is their future. And if they’re not showing up to advocate for housing, it’s really tricky because the folks that sit there as a volunteer commissioner as a Council member, you hear what’s in front of you, and it sounds like, “No. No. No. We don’t want it.” 

And that can appear to resonate as being across the community, but that’s not the case. Most folks that I talk to say, “We need growth. We need the housing now. It needs to be done smart; it needs to be mindful. But we need it. Because right now our biggest export is our children, and that is just wrong, wrong.”

Kent: Our export, our children. What we’re seeing at the Grassroot Institute is since 2016, 22,000 residents on net have moved to the mainland. And that trend seems to be getting greater as the cost of living is just so high here. 

So, yes, I think there are a lot of people that would definitely like to see a house for them. 

Now, on Hawaii County, you guys are also updating your general plan and zoning and subdivision code.

What we’ve seeing on the other islands is the number of “shall” instead of “may” in those plans seems to increase over time, and then that adds to the regulation. Now, does updating the general plan, and the zoning, and subdivision code, does that always mean more regulations? Or could it also mean lighter regulations, perhaps?

Kern: Yeah, the goal is to actually have lighter regulations, to have the regulations where they’re needed. And so our goal through this general plan update and code update is to say, “Hey, we want it to be in this area, let’s make that easy. In the areas that we don’t want it, let’s regulate and prohibit that.” Very simple. 

So with our general plan update, I’m very attentive to “shalls.” We have lots of good debate with our team members around this. So we’re working towards, again, more of a dynamic plan that solves for our problems — not another plan of how do we regulate, but also a plan that will collectively bring departments together to solve these issues around infrastructure. Because when the county’s siloed, and you’re not working together for infrastructure to pave the way, that’s also a challenge.

And that’s what I want the general plan to ultimately do: be used for truly how it’s supposed to be, not just a planning tool, but a guide for our county on where to prioritize our infrastructure, and where we want housing, where we want growth, and say, “Great, you’re there, let’s go forward with it.” 

Same thing with our code. Our subdivision code was last updated in 1983; our zoning code, 1997. This is the first comprehensive update.

So we’re going through, we have a tight timeframe on it, we’re going to get it done in a year and a half. And we’re going to be looking at smaller lot sizes, really just going through all of these areas. 

Like when you see a 201H, an affordable housing project, and they ask for all these variances. Why do they have to go through that process to get the variances? If it’s an affordable project, shouldn’t that just be baked into our code? Shouldn’t you just select from the menu and say, “That’s what I’m doing”? 

So that’s the goal, is to really make it more cost-effective, achievable and certainty. Certainty is the big deal. You gotta have a level of certainty if we want housing.

Kern: And that brings us to a concept called by-right development, which basically is, if a housing project meets all the pre-established criteria, then it has the right to be developed, rather than having to go through tons of public hearings, where it can be killed. 

This is something that the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization has discussed. Do you think that could help on the Big Island — by-right housing?

Kern: Yeah, I think it can help in some certain areas. The by-right is usually brought together with form-based code so you can really maintain … Form-based code gets you a level of certainty on what your place is going to be developed as, and keeps it looking a certain way.

Kern: What is that form-based code? Can you define that?

Kern: Form-based versus, like, Euclidean. Euclidean zoning talks about just more of the basic “Here’s your zoning, here’s what you can and cannot do.” 

Form-based says, “You can pretty much do any of this within this area, but it’s got to look a certain way: It’s got to be two stories, it’s got to have that nice street frontage, it’s got to maintain your sense of place, more character.” 

Kauai has a couple programs that they’ve done on their island. So we’re looking at that. 

Our first layer through the code is to really stabilize it to get us back to ground zero and look at how we can bring in the by-right and the form-based in there.

Now the challenge with that is going to be communication. Because there’s a lot of misperception out there, there’s a lot of lack of trust that people feel, like, “Hey, if it’s by-right, they’re just going to do anything. You’re going to sell out Hawaii.” 

That’s not the case. The case is: How do we have the right tools to solve for it? I think having a level of communication, understanding, broad reach to allow for this, is going to be essential with creating that foundation to move forward with by-right in the right area.

Kent: Thanks. Is there anything else that you’d like to add? We kind of did a whirlwind tour about Hawaii housing. But any takeaway for our viewers?

Kern: Yeah. From a Hawaii County perspective, we’re solving as fast as we can. We’re doing a Chapter 11, which is our housing. Susan Kunz, our housing administrator, is doing an update to that, as well as looking at the inclusionary zoning on what does and doesn’t work. 

When we first came in for affordable housing, we had around 400 units or so in the pipeline. Now, we have closer to 5,000 units in the pipeline. So, now, granted, that’s a move in the direction. They’re not all built yet, but what we’re seeing is a push towards that. 

And my side, being born and raised here, just want to make sure that our children have the opportunity to stay here and come back home if they want to. And housing is one of those essential elements. It’s folks like you and your organization and others that we can collectively come together, have this conversation and move us towards solutions.

Kent: Well, thanks so much for being on the program today. And Hawaii Island is probably the last “affordable” quote-unquote place in Hawaii, but it is still unaffordable for most people. [laughter] So, thanks so much for the work you’re doing and thank you for listening to “Hawaii Together.” I’m Joe Kent. Thanks again.


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