Planning Commission Buckles Down
While the permitting process to build or improve housing and businesses on Molokai can be stressful, members of the Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC) say it’s a crucial process that allows for community feedback and ensuring the protection of Molokai’s land and resources.
Over the years, that process has often been bypassed. But following MoPC’s meticulous scrutiny of two applications for after-the-fact (ATF) improvements in recent months – meaning applicants were seeking permits for construction that had already taken place – several of its nine volunteer commissioners said they’ve had enough.
“I really think that people are starting to realize that this commission is not going to take this kind of nonsense anymore,” Vice Chair John Sprinzel said at MoPC’s Oct. 12 meeting. “Each one of us at this table could go around and point out 10 things that were built on the island that weren’t passed [for permitting].”
Oct. 12 marked the start of three meetings – totaling more than 10 hours – in which commissioners discussed extensive and complex ATF permitting for slightly more than 150 acres of east end property owned by Kamehameha Schools (KS).
KS representatives said the multiple improvements were made over a 20-year period by tenants leasing the property: Ohia Shrimp Farm from 1986 to 1993, and D&J Ocean Shrimp Farm from 1995 to 2007.
Among other things, the alterations included the construction of 16 shrimp ponds, building a large farm dwelling and making grading alterations and drainage improvements, totaling an estimated $350,000, according to KS’s applications for Special Management Area (SMA) permits and exemptions.
KS Senior Land Asset Manager Kalani Fronda said in an email last week that the process to apply for the ATF permits was triggered six years ago, when the County of Maui Department of Public Works (DPW) received a complaint “alleging that improvements on the property were built without permits.”
Fronda declined to respond to a question about how KS did not realize unpermitted improvements were taking place on the property during the 20-year period, but said “KS has upgraded its property inspection program.”
KS is endowed with 365,000 acres of land statewide, according to its website.
Commissioners repeatedly stressed that they could not approve permitting simply because improvements were already in place, but had to look at the application as if it were a brand new project and the land were still undisturbed.
“The community was gypped out of the chance to weigh in,” Chair Mikiala Pescaia said Oct. 26.
Several community members testified to that effect during that meeting, with one saying KS and tenants have been “passing the buck from one to another.”
“It was a beautiful place but because of all the driving back and forth … it was just changing the area, how that island got beaten up and how we lost a lot of land there,” the testifier said.
“We are all held by law to approach this as if it were a brand new application,” Sprinzel added Nov. 9. If MoPC did not concur with the request for SMA minor permits or exemptions, the project could require an SMA major permit that brings with it more months of hearings and approvals.
MoPC approved a series of SMA permits and exemptions with conditions at the Nov. 9 meeting which allowed KS to move forward and seek additional permits, required by the DPW for the ATF construction.
Fronda said KS expects to finish the ATF permitting process within about 12 months.
“Former lessee is responsible for correcting the permitting violations in paying for all related administrative fines,” he said. At the Oct. 12 meeting, he said those fines were in “seven figures.”
“KS will work with the former lessee to insure that these violations and fines are address in a timely fashion,” Kalani added.
Other MoPC frustrations stemmed from the Sept. 28 meeting, when commissioners deferred a decision on a SMA exemption pending more information on a residential property.
At their next meeting, Oct. 12, commissioners learned that part of the improvements being proposed – a retaining wall surrounding part of the property – had already been built, and therefore should have originally come in as an ATF permit.
Identifying who made the decision to omit the ATF details was beside the point, several commissioners said, stressing that if improvements have already been made, they cannot be submitted as if they were yet to be built.
After driving by the property and seeing the wall, “I felt deceived,” Commissioner Janice Kalanihuia said Oct. 12. “It was not good.”
At the request of Commissioner Nat Bacon, the applicant withdrew his application and may resubmit it as ATF.
At the end of the KS application Nov. 9, Chair Pescaia thanked the Schools for working through the meticulous process with MoPC and expressed hopes of avoiding such an ordeal in the future.
“What we’re trying to do is reflect this on the record,” she said, “so the next person comes along don’t make the same mistakes.”