Time to get serious about carrying capacity, housing, water

On Oct. 4 at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall starting at 8:30 a.m., Kauai residents will be testifying on what is potentially the most important agenda item the County Council will be dealing with in the coming decade. I am hopeful that residents who feel strongly about changing the direction our island is currently heading in will show up.

The council currently has before it a proposed ordinance with the potential to dramatically impact the future direction of Kauai County. We are at a turning point. We can choose to preserve the status quo, or we can choose to do things differently.

The General Plan can be a “feel-good” document that sits on a shelf ignored and forgotten, or it can be a strong mandate to developers and government agencies that ensures all county decisions strictly adhere to the General Plan.

While some on the council and within the county administration will attempt to frame the General Plan as “just a policy document” and “not regulatory in nature,” what they will fail to state is that it does not have to be that way.

According to the Kauai County Charter:

“The council shall adopt and may…modify a general plan setting forth…policies to govern the future physical development of the county. Such a plan may cover the entire county and all of its functions and services …” The charter further states: “The general plan shall serve as a guide to all future council action concerning land use and development regulations…”

Further evidence that the General Plan is intended to be a strong and meaningful document is the Charter requirement that it be adopted via ordinance, which carries the weight of law.

Clearly, the council has the authority to modify and pass a General Plan that covers policies to “govern all future physical development” and may cover “all functions and services.” The strength or weakness of those policies depends on the Kauai County Council. They have the legal authority to pass wishy-washy, business-as-usual policies, or they can pass strong policies that require or prohibit activities, and/or make certain development actions contingent upon various circumstances.

For example, the council could amend and approve a General Plan that establishes the island’s “carrying capacity” based on existing infrastructure, availability of affordable housing for residents and impacts on the natural environment; and contain provisions designed to prevent future growth from exceeding those limits. This can be done while honoring private property rights and current land-use “entitlements.” Limiting growth based on infrastructure capacity is not a novel concept and should be at the very core of our General Plan.

Any plan the council passes must also ensure that affordable housing built primarily for local residents in existing urban areas must occur before any more high-end luxury homes or resort areas are developed. Multi-modal traffic and transportation plans that reduce congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, the protection of the natural environment, mauka and makai access for local residents to public resources (ocean, coastline, streams and mountains), and protection of traditional cultural practices and gathering rights, all must be included with clear and strong mandates to the county agencies responsible for permitting and implementation.

The General Plan must also contain provisions designed to ensure that the impact of new development shall not violate the public trust doctrine regarding the protection of water, land and other natural resources; and shall adhere to the tenants of the “Kauai Springs” court decision. Local food production and sustainable agriculture as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture must also be established as a county priority, and industrial agriculture must be appropriately regulated.

At the end of the day, the outcome of the General Plan and the future path of our island rests in the hands of the Kauai County Council. But, actually, the outcome rests in your hands. Show up, testify and be part of the process, or abdicate that vital responsibility and live with the results.

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Gary Hooser formerly served in the Hawaii State Senate, where he was Majority Leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.

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