EDITORIAL: Lax Policy of Hawai'i County Eggs On Violators

posted in: December 2012, Editorial | 0

Scott Watson may be a “serial violator,” to use the description of him offered by an employee of the Hawai`i County Planning Department. But as serious and numerous as his infractions may be, the real villain in the sad stories that take up much of this issue isn’t Watson.

It’s the county Planning Department.

Maybe the problem lies in the fact that with every change in administration, a new director takes office. Or maybe it can be traced to overworked staff that don’t have the time to do the research that would give them a better understanding of the pattern of problems associated with a certain developer or project.

Whatever the cause, it has created a situation that the public should no longer have to endure.

Immediately, the Planning Department should ensure that public access is restored wherever it is guaranteed. If a developer has created circumstances on the ground that make access dangerous, then he should be required to make it safe at once or be slapped with a stop-work order until safe access is restored. In the case of the lot where Watson is building a self-described “Pepe`ekeo Palace,” he has instead been told that, if he resolves an outstanding violation, the department may look with favor on his request to shut down lateral shoreline access for two more years – and possibly beyond that.

This cannot stand. The Hawai`i County Council values the public’s ability to access coastal areas and recently has gone to great lengths, and expense, to acquire easements for this purpose. That the Planning Department would even think of surrendering them, temporarily or otherwise, is simply outrageous.

The department also must crack down on Special Management Area and shoreline setback violators, especially those responsible for repeated and brazen infractions. In this issue, we look at just three instances of permits where the same builder has repeatedly been warned of serious consequences – only to escape time and again with figurative wrist-slaps. Really, who can argue with straight face that a $2,000 or even $8,000 fine is a meaningful deterrent to someone who is building million-dollar mansions with fountains, pools, and even a helipad?

As Watson has been sternly reminded in almost every notice of violation sent to him, the county’s penalty powers are not trifling. The state’s Coastal Zone Management Act, which the counties are to enforce, provides for a fine of up to $100,000, plus restoration costs and $10,000-a-day fines for ongoing violations. The county’s Planning Commission rules for Special Management Area violations are just as tough. The Planning Department’s own rules provide for imposing a fine of $10,000 per violation and a maximum daily fine of $1,000 until the violation is corrected.

Whether even those would be stiff enough to deter someone with the deep pockets that Watson evidently has is an open question, since at no time has the Planning Department ever come close to imposing fines at the upper end of the range. What should no longer be doubted is that the penalties imposed on him so far have not made any observable difference in his behavior.

Finally, there’s the troubling suggestion of political interference. One of many Facebook photos Watson has posted shows a beaming Mayor Billy Kenoi standing alongside Watson on the terrace of Watson’s Ninole house. In Planning Department files, at around the same time, Watson – once more begging for a reduced fine on the very deadline for him to pay an $8,000 fine, already reduced – informs the planning director that Kenoi has “asked if you could cc him all my info on this matter.” A staffer in the department confirmed that the letter responding to him, mailed out more than a month later, had been discussed with Kenoi by top Planning Department staff, including the director.

To be sure, the piddling $8,000 fine was not further reduced, but the apparent involvement of the mayor in what should be a straightforward enforcement effort by the Planning Department is outrageous.

Whether or not a developer is a friend of Billy, whether or not a builder has connections in the County Council or the Legislature or even Congress, is wholly immaterial to the requirement that state and county rules be equitably and firmly enforced.

Anything less is absolutely intolerable.

Volume 23, Number 6 — December 2012

environment hawaii hawaii county public access scott watson billy kenoi

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