Environmental Groups, GOP Lawmakers, Rally to Oppose Four Bills That Exempt Government Projects from Environmental Process

Photo by Mel Ah Ching
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Photo by Mel Ah Ching

A diverse group held a press conference at the state Capitol yesterday to oppose four bills that exempt state and county government projects from the standard environmental review process. About 50 people representing various community and environmental organizations laid out their opposition to the controversial legislation – part of the “dirty dozen” – they say will hurt Hawaii’s environment in a number of ways.

Spokespeople for Hawaii’s 1000 Friends, Earth Justice, Sierra Club, Save Oahu Farm Lands, Kakaako-Makai Community Planning Advisory Council, the North Shore Neighborhood Board, and the native Hawaiian community, were among those protesting bills, some of which are on the schedule for action today at the legislative crossover.


Robert Harris from the Sierra Club said: “Environmental laws helped protect Hawaii for the last 40 years, … helped keep the country country, and yet this year, perhaps more so than in the past, these laws are under attack. Let me be clear: Most people are fully in favor of the idea of streamlining – of trying to make sure we can have a healthy economy and a healthy environment.  But what is being proposed today is not streamlining. It is attempting to fundamentally exempt the government from having to comply with its own laws.”

Four Republican lawmakers including Representatives Cynthia Thielen, Gil Riviere and Corrine Ching and Senator Sam Slom, also shared their opposition to the bills. There has been bipartisan opposition in the House that includes Democrats largely from the dissident faction and the majority of the House Republicans, but in the Senate, Sam Slom, the lone Republican, is the only one to vote against these measures so far.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen, R-Kailua, said “I am so grateful to all you for being out here, because this is what makes a difference. … There are some very bad bills that are moving their way through the legislature and because of all of you and your opposition, we are beginning to be able to slow those bills down. Tomorrow is the day I hope we kill them.”
All of the speakers had a similar message:  The bills are “bad” for Hawaii’s environment and cultural sites – and they expressed dismay the leadership of the House and Senate “are not listening to the public’s concerns.”
Kaleo Pike, who represented the native Hawaiian community, said the community needs to have a stronger voice. “They are not being heard.  And only a select few are being heard. That has to stop.”
The speakers also agreed there should be more transparency and accountability in the legislative process.

Specifically, the legislation includes:

SB 2927, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, D-North Shore, which allows the construction of high-density projects via “Transit Oriented Developments” (TOD) to be built around rail and bus transit stations. The TODs could include the construction of structures that exceed height and density zoning limits built without the normal county planning and zoning change process. All state fees for construction around the city’s planned elevated steel on steel rail system will be exempt. In addition, no one will be held liable for problems: the legislation “indemnifies any county, its officials, or employees from any action taken on reviewing, approving, modifying or disapproving an application or plans for an exceptional planning project.” 

Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii’s 1000 Friends, said “Unplanned high-density Transit Oriented Development could impact and adversely affect conservation land, open shoreline recreational areas, historic sites and agricultural lands.”

SB 755which had its contents “gutted and replaced” by new language, “exempts state projects from Chapter 343 environmental review (Environmental Assessment and Impact Statement process) and from shoreline setback variance requirements. The legislation also “exempts airport structures and improvements from the county coastal Special Management Area Permit (SMA) process and  exempts commercial harbors submerged lands from conservation district permitting and site plan review requirements.” If this bill passes, Gov. Neil Abercrombie could develop the list of state projects to exempt from environmental review requirements, and in the process, skip over the Environmental Council, the Office of Environmental Quality Control rules and the county SMA process. Several of the people there yesterday said how disappointed they are with Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who was supported by environmentalists in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, has been pushing development in Kakaako. That includes the a 650-foot tower, two smaller residential and commercial buildings, a parking structure, and a civic/commercial center at 690 Pohukaina. The tower, which would include affordable and market-priced apartments, would be the tallest building in Hawaii and exceed long established height limits.
Wayne Takamine, chair of the Kakaako-Makai Community Planning Advisory Council, said yesterday: “We have some concerns about the governor is going to be in charge of all of these exemptions. And some of these positions he has taken, doesn’t consider all of the stakeholders that are involved.”
SB 755 HD3 and SB 2927 HD1, along with HB 2398 SD1, and HB 2819 SD2 would “collectively allow exceptionally high-density developments in yet-to-be-established urban “planning districts” and state agency/private partnership projects to be channeled through the Public Lands Development Corporation (PLDC), a budding new agency.”
Michelle Matson, one of the two primary organizers of yesterday’s event, said because of Act 55, which was enacted in 2011, the PLDC is already exempt from state statutes, city ordinances and building standards.
Some 700 have signed a petition opposing the bills.