Institute submits suggestions for revitalizing Maui economy

The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for consideration by the Maui County Council on Sept. 12, 2023.

Sept. 12, 2023
9 a.m.
Maui County Council Chamber

To: Maui County Council, Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee
      Yuki Lei Sugimura, Chair
      Tasha Kama, Vice Chair

From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
           Joe Kent, Executive Vice President


Comments Only

Dear Chair and Committee Members:

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on what the county can do to revitalize Maui’s economy in the wake of the deadly Aug. 8 wildfires.

The Institute grieves with Maui residents at the loss of life, property and heritage in the Lahaina fires. Under these circumstances, the challenges associated with rebuilding Maui’s economy can seem overwhelming; however, if we approach financial recovery with a sense of respect for those impacted by this tragedy, we could mitigate the economic damage it has caused and help start a healthy rebuilding process.

First and foremost, as a general principle, the County should respect the rights of Lahaina residents who lost loved ones, homes and businesses in the fires. Those who owned land or buildings in Lahaina should not be forced to give up their property rights to the county or anyone else.

That said, there are several policies the county can advance to preserve the rights of Lahaina residents.

Because many of the buildings in Lahaina Town were constructed decades ago, before modern building codes and zoning ordinances were established, they were considered “nonconforming uses.” As a result, many buildings did not meet minimum parking requirements, mandatory setbacks or other zoning-related standards.

The Council should pass legislation allowing those property owners the right to rebuild their land with whatever exemptions or waivers their previous building had in place. This would give them the option to rebuild in a form and style that would be similar to the old Lahaina Town, if they so choose to rebuild in that way.

Next, with an eye toward rebuilding, the Council should amend Maui County Code, Chapter 16.26B.105, Section 105.2.1, “Emergency reconstruction of dwellings and accessory structures.” This section of the county code sets out a process by which those whose properties have been damaged by a natural disaster can obtain building permits in an expedited fashion.

The amendment should specify that structures that were destroyed — not simply “damaged,” as the statute currently reads — are allowed to obtain permits as that section of the code prescribes. It should also mandate that permit fees be waived for such reconstruction.

The Council should also borrow a line from Hawaii County’s code, indicating that “Emergency work may commence… without a permit. However, the applicant shall notify the authority having jurisdiction of such emergency work on the workday immediately following the day the emergency work is commenced. This notification shall be made in writing.”

Hawaii County’s code further provides that “An application for a permit for the emergency work shall be filed with and appropriate fees… paid to the authority having jurisdiction within fourteen days of the commencement of the emergency work.”[1]

These changes would assist Lahaina residents in rebuilding quickly and with lower total costs — whenever such rebuilding is allowed to take place, of course.

These suggestions mirror the 2014 Hawaii Natural Disaster Economic Recovery Strategy, which advocated the creation of a “‘Build it Back Better’ program for the urban commercial areas to aid in swift recovery and improved vitality and resilience following a disaster.

“The legislation could authorize the Departments of Planning and Public Works in each County to establish a rapid repair permit system with expedited processing for repairing and rebuilding structures after a natural disaster.”[2]

Since Maui has such a “rapid repair permit system” in place, state legislation is unnecessary, but the Council would do well to expand the applicability of its emergency permit rules.

In order to boost the supply of available housing in the short term, the Council should also temporarily waive parking requirements and sewer and water connection fees for accessory dwelling units constructed to house displaced Lahaina residents. A number of businesses already offer prefabricated ADUs, which could be installed with minimal effort.

Boosting the stock of ADUs could be essential for housing Lahaina residents in the short and medium term, but also in the long term, since the county has identified ADUs as one method of combating its housing shortage.

Furthermore, to assist economic recovery, the Council should immediately create an “Economic recovery board” tasked with gathering community and business input regarding which state and county regulations impede economic diversification and business expansion and the hiring, training and retention of new employees.

The Council should also explore the possibility of designating Lahaina as an Enterprise Zone. Such a designation could reduce tax liabilities for any businesses rebuilding or starting up in Lahaina once it begins to recover.

Looking ahead, the Council should consider broader reforms to its zoning code. The wildfires did not erase Maui’s housing crisis — they only made it worse, underscoring the need for new housing and new rules for providing such housing.

At the least, the Council should remove parking minimums, allow houses to be built on smaller lots and expand the supply of land on which duplexes and apartments can legally be constructed. We look forward to future dialogue on these issues.

Beyond specific policies, it is paramount the Council do one thing: Respect Lahaina residents, their concerns and their rights. Any top-down models for rebuilding Lahaina should be rejected; instead, the community should simply be empowered to naturally reconstruct its home.

The Institute thanks the Committee for holding this hearing. Please let us know if we can be of assistance in any way.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify.


Joe Kent
Executive Vice President
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

[1] Hawaii County Code, Chapter 5, Construction Administrative Code, Article 3, Section 5-3-25. Emergency work., accessed Sept. 8, 2023.
[2]Natural Disaster Economic Recovery Strategy,” Prepared by SSFM International, Inc. for the Office of Planning in the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, December 2014, p. 64.

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