It is becoming increasingly clear that Kaua‘i is becoming an economic battleground. On the one hand are those who would exploit the island for financial opportunities arising from its beauty, climate and rural nature. On the other hand there is the large preponderance of its residents who would prefer that Kaua‘i remain without any further major commercial development.
As is usual in this type of combat those resisting commercialization of our island are neither well-organized nor politically effective. Those who are willing to deploy their financial resources to pursue development and curry political favor have the upper hand.
One arena where the condition of our island is contested is before the Planning Commission. At its regular weekly meetings the drama is played out with developers and their retained counsel offering programs to change presently unimproved land into hotels, resorts, time shares or subdivisions. It is an uneven struggle. The commission is obliged to act in accordance with the laws that the County Council has established to achieve what is called zoning. In consequence the function of the commission has ceased to be planning for our county and has become an agency for “permitting” development. The requirements for a position on the Planning Commission are not neutral. At present members of the commission may be developers, contractors, architects and others who have a vested interest and an economic stake in seeing development occur on Kaua‘i. The playing field should be made more level with a requirement that eliminates from the commission those with a conflict of interest.
The body, though, that has the real power to control the amount of construction on our island is the County Council. Under state law the council is the agency that is authorized to engage in long range zoning in accordance with a comprehensive general plan. Its efforts have created a structure that establishes certain density and use frameworks, but is most permissive of development whenever an organization with financial means desires to pursue it. In this climate developments have been approved that are opposed by citizens affected by them and which exceed the capacities of our island infrastructure. A painfully evident result of this haphazard pattern is the traffic congestion that engulfs Kapa‘a and certain other areas.
While the hour is late, an alert citizenry could act to reverse the largely unrestricted avenues used to accomplish unwanted developments on Kaua‘i. We do not need to stop all development — we need to redirect it. There are perhaps 2,000 accommodation units required to provide affordable housing for a community that is unable to pay for the expensive properties that the developers find attractive.
It is unrealistic to think that our Council which is bogged down with a variety of other issues such as the bike path and vacation rentals would take action without major prodding from our citizens. But if a representative group of our community who cares about the future of our island was to place a thoughtful program of reforms before the council and demonstrate a firm conviction that they need to be adopted the tide might be turned. The requisite action should include a reformation of the makeup of the Planning Commission (as above mentioned), a requirement that the Planning Commission and the council approve by a super majority vote any major development, a mandated impact fee for costlier accommodations and commercial developments with the proceeds earmarked for subsidizing affordable housing, and a limited moratorium on construction pending alleviation of infrastructure disorders, principally traffic.
Such a program would no doubt be met with howls of anguish and counter attack by developers. Our citizens should stand firm and urge the council to act in accordance with the will of their constituents, the great preponderance of the people. Perhaps the willingness of the council to proceed could be strengthened if they were made aware that the people would be prepared, if necessary, to use their petition rights in a charter amendment to achieve their objectives.
Or maybe we should stand aside and just let nature take its course allowing development to proceed as it is now able to do. It is a test of how we wish to be governed, how much we value the heritage we are enjoying and whether we are sincerely concerned about the future welfare of our society.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.