Robert Thomas
Robert Thomas

BY ROBERT THOMAS – A quick one. An op-ed from the newly-appointed Director of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

In “City followed law in issuing Hao Street development permit,” he makes some good points in this piece about building permits for two single-family homes in east Honolulu, points we don’t usually see being made by government officials. Unfortunately, its mostly behind a firewall (come on, you should subscribe to Hawaii’s paper of record), but here are the most interesting bits:

Building and grading permits are ministerial, meaning the city cannot lawfully deny them if the plans meet applicable codes. Residents may object to new homes being built in their neighborhood, but the owner is allowed by right to do so under the law.

For example, assume your lifetime dream is to build a family home. You then purchase a property zoned for residential use; however, your neighbors object and demand that the city prevent you from building on this property after you have expended money, time and resources. By law, we must treat every property owner equally and cannot deny one’s rights, while allowing the same rights to others.

A recent letter to the editor (“Project raises many questions,” Star-Advertiser, Feb. 20) accused DPP of denying requests for information until after the permits were approved. Unlike discretionary permits, where public input is openly sought from the beginning, building and grading permit applications are ministerial and there is no requirement of prior public notification.

We understand the concerns of residents near the development, but we can assure them that the health and safety of the public, along with private property rights, are our top priority when we review and approve building permit applications.

For more about the “ministerial vs. discretionary” distinction and the “vested rights” doctrine under Hawaii law, check out this law review article we did a few years ago on the subject.



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Robert H. Thomas is one of the preeminent land use lawyers in Hawaii. He specializes in land use issues including regulatory takings, eminent domain, water rights, and voting rights cases. He has tried cases and appeals in Hawaii, California, and the federal courts. Robert received his LLM, with honors, from Columbia Law School where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, and his JD from the University of Hawaii School of Law where he served as editor of the Law Review. Robert taught law at the University of Santa Clara School of Law, and was an exam grader and screener for the California Committee of Bar Examiners. He currently serves as the Chair of the Condemnation Law Committee of the American Bar Association’s Section on State & Local Government Law. He is the Hawaii member of Owners’ Counsel of America, a national network of the most experienced eminent domain and property rights lawyers. Membership in OCA is by invitation only, and is limited to a single attorney from each state. Robert is also the Managing Attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation Hawaii Center, a non-profit legal foundation dedicated to protecting property rights and individual liberties. Reach him at He is also a frequent speaker on land use and eminent domain issues in Hawaii and nationwide. For a list of upcoming events and speaking engagements.