Molokai Vets Protest Building Permit Hold-Ups

Four years after Molokai veterans began the process of building a veterans center, a group of fed-up veterans traveled to Maui last week to protest further hold-ups in obtaining their building permit.

The project has been delayed over concerns that not enough water flows through the current waterline in case of fire. The county Department of Water Supply has not signed off on the building permit because the 4-inch waterline serving the site on Wharf Road does not meet their standards. The Fire Department, however, signed off on the building permit on back in December.

“All we want to do is put up our building,” said Larry Helm, commander of the Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans.

In a May 2009 letter, the Department of Water Supply told Maui County Planner Nancy McPherson that the project site is served by an 8-inch waterline. But it was later determined that it is actually served by a 4-inch line.

The county had told the veterans they must install an 8-inch line at their own expense in order to proceed with building plans, according to Helm.

“They have jumped through all the hoops required by Maui County,” Maui County Council Chair Danny Mateo wrote in a May 2010 letter in support of the project.

In a May 27 email to Mateo, Mayor Charmaine Tavares expressed her “desire to have this issue resolved by next Friday, June 4th, if not sooner.” But that resolution never came.

Standing at Attention
About 15 members of the 300-member Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans group traveled to Maui by ferry last Thursday. Three veterans negotiated with representatives of Mayor Tavares, while the rest of the group held protest signs in front of the county municipal building. They were joined by members of a Maui veterans group.

“Today it’s beyond frustrating,” said Molokai veteran Mac Poepoe. “We’re getting the run-around….We’re not asking for that much. All we’re asking is for one piece of paper.”

Roy Silva, the mayor’s executive assistant, proposed a resolution that would transfer the authority over water flow for fire protection from the Department of Water Supply to the Fire Department. The change in county code could take place as soon as this fall, according Silva.

Currently, both departments must review building permit applications, but they use different fire flow standards, Silva told the veterans during their meeting. Fire Department calculations are based on the national fire code, while the Department of Water Supply bases their standards on national insurance code, Silva said.

“This is a long standing issue that should have been corrected in the past,” he said. Silva added the proposed change is not a result of the veterans’ issue, but the situation did move it to the forefront.

While the change had been proposed in the past, both departments wanted the final say. Now, Silva told the veterans, both the Director of the Water Department, Jeffery Eng, and the County Fire Chief, Jeff Murray, support the change.

“The fire department is in favor,” he said. “We believe this is the quickest solution.”

The change in county code would need to pass through two Maui County Council readings before final approval from Mayor Tavares. But Silva said he did not foresee any hitches.

“We cannot see any council members voting against it,” Silva affirmed.

“I don’t want to say that we don’t recognize the anger,” county spokesperson Mahina Martin told the veterans during the meeting. But she said the county is doing everything it can to find a resolution and “work with… our options.”

The protesting veterans put down their signs when they heard news of the resolution, but some remained apprehensive.

“When I get the permit in my hand, I’ll believe it,” veteran Manny Garcia said. His hunch might prove true.

More Hold-ups
When contacted by the Maui News on Thursday, Murray denied his department’s sign-off on the building permit, saying the Fire Prevention Bureau had not okayed the project.

“I just honestly don’t believe that a 4-inch line would be sufficient for fire protection,” sMurray told the Maui News. “We all have rules that we have to follow. We can’t just make an exemption for them.”

Murray could not be reached by the Dispatch on Friday for comment.

Another option for Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans is to wait on a proposed Department of Land and Natural Resources wharf improvement project that would require the installation of a 12-inch water line along Wharf Road. The veterans have been told they could use that line. However, there is currently no guarantee the project will move forward, and the Molokai Planning Commission has already expressed opposition to the project because of design flaws.

The current 4-inch line supplies water to businesses and homes from Molokai Burger down Wharf Road, including to the veterans’ site. It also serves Island Petroleum, Molokai’s sole gas storage facility.

“If the petroleum place has 4-inch line and that’s enough pressure to prevent fire, why is it not enough for us?” asked Helm.

Molokai veterans are now considering legal action and have already found a lawyer willing to represent them in a possible law suit against the county. Maui attorney James Fosbinder attended a Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans meeting in May and called the situation “the most outrageous case of government bureaucratic abuse that I’ve seen.”

The planned 3,000 square foot building received a $250,000 grant from the state for design and construction. Architect Art Parr submitted an application for the necessary Special Management Area permit to the Molokai Planning Commission over three years ago.

The Commission finally granted the permit in July 2009 after zoning complications and building plan changes. The group filed for the building permit in October, and so far it has received the stamp of approval from all necessary departments except the Department of Water Supply.

Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans have lost 35 members since the group began plans to build a center four years ago. The organization currently operates out of a 250 square foot storefront in Kaunakakai.

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