You can tell a lot about a bill simply by who shows up to testify.
Which is why it was so revealing to see Randall Francisco, president of the Chamber of Commerce; Tom Shigemoto, the former county planning director who now works for A&B’s Kukuiula Development; and David Arakawa, director of the pro-development Land Use Research Foundation, show up at Wednesday’s Council meeting to speak in support of Bill 2410.
That’s the bill that seeks to implement the charter amendment, which voters approved by a two-to-one margin in 2008, that puts a cap on transient accommodation units (TAU). Or in other words, limits the amount of resort-oriented development allowed on Kauai.
Offering testimony in opposition to the bill as drafted by the Planning Department were Carl Imparato of the Coalition for Responsible Government, which initiated the charter amendment; David Dinner of Kauai’s Thousand Friends; and various advocates for the citizenry, including Glenn Mickens, Walter Lewis and Rich Hoeppner.
Given that line up, are you starting to get an indication of just whose interests the bill supports?
To offer a bit of background, the General Plan that was adopted in 2000 recommended a growth rate for tourist accommodations of about 1.5 percent per year. That figure was based on the number of units needed to house the Plan’s high-ball estimate of 28,000 daily visitors by the year 2020.
Yet between 2000 and 2008, the Planning Commission approved some 4,500 units, which represents three to five times the number needed to meet the highest estimated growth rate of visitors.
In response to the Commission’s inability to “just say no” to developers, voters approved the charter amendment, which took the authority for processing most TAU away from the Commission and gave it instead to the County Council. The Council could return authority to the Commission, provided it adhered to a strict annual growth limit of 1.5 percent.
Since then, the economy tanked, construction came to a screeching halt and the county has been trying to figure out how to implement the charter amendment without actually limiting growth. Which leads us to the bill currently on the table.
A primary source of contention is what to do about the 3,000 to 4,000 units that were approved, but not yet built. The amendment allows no exception from the 1.5 percent growth rate for these units, which means that if they all go forward, no new projects can be approved for 20 years.
Needless to say, that does not set well with developers, which is why they like Bill 2410. As Imparato pointed out in his testimony, the proposed ordinance exempts not only “live” projects that received approvals in the last 10 years, but also projects that have not yet been proposed for resort lands.
As a result, he said, compliance with the Charter amendment could be pushed back by more than 30 years. He argued that only projects that are actually under way in this century should be given special treatment.
Furthermore, the bill allows an exemption for “tentatively approved subdivisions” and other multi-lot subdivisions. Imparto contends there is no justification for such an exemption, which would violate the charter.
That’s not the only problem. The bill allows future growth to be based on the actual number of TAUs rather than the allowed number of TAUs. In other words, if you factor in the big backlog of approved projects, it would result in a growth rate that is 20 percent higher, or 2.3 percent annually, than specified under the charter amendment.
Or as Imparato phrased it:
Under the proposed definition, the further out-of-compliance the County is (with respect to the number of TAUs allowed under the Charter), the greater the number of TAUs the Planning Commission would be allowed to issue in the future!
Advocates of the bill, on the other hand, spoke of the need to protect a developer’s “vested rights,” with LURF’s Arakawa arguing that no cap should be placed on projects deemed exempt and Shigemoto saying that the General Plan “never intended for a finite growth cap to be adopted.”
He also reminded the Council of the “many people who rely on the visitor industry for their livelihoods and contractors who have to rely on timely approvals to keep their employees working. There are also people in the development industry that need a certain level of predictability to sustain our long term viability.”
Francisco, for his part, maintained that it was crazy to think of limiting growth in a depressed economy.
At the core of this issue is just how much we realistically can expect the visitor industry to expand, especially now that experts are saying we likely have already hit the pinnacle, and just how much we want Kauai to grow.
But even more crucial than that is whether the bill, as proposed, truly reflects the sentiment of the voters who approved the Charter Amendment. Those who did the signature gathering to get it on the ballot, and so are in position to speak to intent, say it does not.
Perhaps the Council, if it truly represents the people, should listen to them.
The bill will be back before the Council’s planning committee next Wednesday, which is when amendments are likely to be introduced.