County Council needs power to stem development tide
by Walter Lewis
In 2000 the Kauai General Plan was adopted to set in place parameters for, among other things, the county’s rate of development.
The plan would limit the increase of visitor accommodation units to an average of about 125 units per year. In the ensuing years development has been on a rampage with the units constructed and those with approvals from the planning officials vastly in excess of the pace contemplated by the General Plan. The Planning Commission takes no responsibility for this surge as their function is exercised strictly on an ad hoc basis. The council and the mayor have been silent on the subject treating the General Plan as a dead letter and content to let nature take its course.
In the past few months, a group of citizens concerned about the unchecked growth of accommodation units for tourists concluded that something needed to be done to prevent the erosion of our island into being a Maui-like Mecca for visitors. Recently the Coalition for Responsible Government has initiated a proposed charter amendment calling for our elected legislative body, the County Council, to accept responsibility for permits for construction of units for transient use rather than leaving this power in the hands of the appointed Planning Commission, which has proven unwilling or unable to stem the development tide. Under the charter amendment the council may delegate the permitting responsibility back to the Planning Commission if it adopts an ordinance limiting tourist accommodations to the rate contemplated under the General Plan.
A The Garden Island article about the announcement of the proposed charter amendment contained extended comments by a member of the County Council which are illustrative of county officials’ attitudes on citizen initiatives. Although she expressed no problem with the purpose of the intended charter amendment, she was outspoken in her prejudice against the charter amendment process. The terms of our charter authorize citizens’ actions to create laws when government officials do not act or when they act against the public will, but she offered a panoply of views in opposition to the use of this authority. Her contention that the charter amendment is “an unwieldy and impractical process” really reflects her bias against citizen initiatives. What she is saying is that even though the council may be unwilling or unable to act, it should have a monopoly on legislative action and that citizens should not have the right to determine how they wish to be governed.
She complains that a charter amendment is usually written by a small number of people but inconsistently she asserts that she is starting to draft a bill on the development subject. The wisdom of a number of people exceeds that of one.
She argues that a charter amendment should be limited to “infrequent and fundamental changes and not for establishing public policy.” That observation is unwarranted given the lethargy of the council and the fact that the proposed amendment does not establish public policy, it seeks to require that the public policy that was set in the General Plan be implemented.
She concludes by threatening that the “county could be exposed to legal challenges” by the amendment as a “land use initiative in disguise.” She disregards the reality that the amendment would only result in a change in our land use laws if the council chooses to act.
In substance she wants the council to have full control over enacting laws that establish public policy. Somehow the fact that that is what the charter amendment proposes — to have the council perform its proper duties and adopt a law mandating the carrying out the policy of the general plan does not seem to penetrate her thinking. The charter protects citizens’ rights. We should support it.
The proposal addresses a concern held by many about the massive rise in the number of accommodation units for island tourists that vastly exceeds the quantity contemplated by the General Plan. No governmental action has been taken on this risk and none seems to be in the offing. Rich Hoeppner, a spokesperson for the measure, is certainly right in saying that it would be years for the council to look at the issues and that even then there is no assurance action might occur. Citizens are increasingly giving the council a vote of no confidence in its in ability to act on matters of public concern. For example, just look at solid-waste disposal.
The petition for the charter amendment, which is now being circulated, does not itself bring the law proposed into effect. The obtaining of the necessary number of voter signatures on the petition and the affirmative vote of our citizens at the November 2008 general election will be required. The voters of our community will need to take a good look at the current situation and exercise their privilege to decide what is best for our county and its people.
In my view, the measure being presented places the responsibility for unwanted growth where it belongs, with our elected officials. Should the council act to make a thoughtful limitation consistent with the public will expressed in the General Plan and being ignored by our county officials, it will create a program that would contain the rapid and unchecked growth now occurring and transforming our society.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.