By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
It’s one of the most controversial acts to come out of the 2011 Legislative session.
Yet it barely got any attention until over a year after its passing.
The Public Land Development Corporation, formed to spur use of the state’s lands, and in the process create revenue for the state, has seemed to generate nothing but controversy since its mission and broad exemptions from county-level regulations began to be digested last summer.
Residents, who crammed public hearings on its proposed administrative rules, have cast it as a villain out to sell the aina, rather than the economic development tool promoted by its supporters in the Legislature.
The Hawaii County Council, Kauai County Council and Hawaii State Association of Counties have also weighed in, joining a growing chorus of critics requesting its abolishment over the exemptions that they say take away local oversight and home rule.
But the public dialogue may have formed differently if it wasn’t for a meeting of a House Water, Land and Ocean Resources meeting held on March 18, 2011.
It was at the meeting that the exemptions for zoning and land-use laws were added to the legislation that created the PLDC, which have acted as a lighting rod for criticism over the past three months.
The exemptions, which made little if any fanfare at the time, were proposed by state Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila and received unanimous support from the committee, which included four Big Island representatives: Jerry Chang, chair; Denny Coffman, Robert Herkes and Mark Nakashima.
In his written testimony, Aila said he felt the agency, to act as a “development arm” for DLNR, would be ineffective and merely serve as an “additional organizational layer” if those exemptions — afforded to Hawaiian Home Lands, the Agribusiness Development Corporation and Hawaii Community Development Corporation — did not apply.
“Without such relief, the new corporation will not have the development advantages of the other special development corporations and agencies and face the same development impediments that the Department currently faces,” he wrote.
Several committee members in interviews said they agreed with that assessment, and criticized zoning and land use regulations for being too burdensome.
At the same time, they disagreed with the criticism that the act wrestled local control from counties or nullifies public input.
“It’s the biggest impediment in getting the PLDC to work effectively,” Chang said, referring to county-level land use rules.
He called getting zoning approval “one of the most difficult things” to get done for developers, adding a council member’s “spin” may affect its outcome.
“I still think so, yes,” the South Hilo Democrat added, when asked if he feels it’s the right choice in face of the recent protests.
“The county still has to review it and give their input on building permits,” Chang said.
The act requires a public hearing to be held on proposed projects.
Nakashima, D-Hamakua, Hilo, said he is surprised by the backlash, noting the exemptions are the same granted to other public development agencies.
“I think a lot of that is a misunderstanding regarding what the actual impact of that language is,” he said.
Nakashima acknowledged that the exemptions “doesn’t sound right” but he believes the development process needs to be streamlined.
South Kona Councilwoman Brenda Ford, one of the more outspoken critics of the PLDC on the council, said simply leaving permit approval with a county’s Planning Department is not enough to provide for local oversight.
Without zoning or land use regulations applying, she worries that development, particularly on state-owned shorelines, would occur with little control.
“My belief is each island should be in charge of designing their own destiny and this strips away home rule for each island,” Ford said.
The permit approval process, for construction or sewer connections, may have little impact on a project’s outcome, she said, if the regulations don’t apply.
“I’m not opposed to smart development,” Ford said. “This is not smart development.”
For Herkes, the outgoing Democrat representing Puna, Ka‘u and Kona, the measure is about creating jobs.
He said he doesn’t think the concerns of counties is justified.
“I think we need to create some jobs and some economic development,” Herkes said. “And I think we have to get rid of the over-regulatory aspects that make it difficult to do that.”
Of the four isle representatives who voted to add the exemptions, Coffman is the only one who thinks it was a bad decision.
The Kailua-Kona Democrat said he didn’t realize what was in the committee’s amendment, saying it went “under the radar” for him.
He has since called for its repeal.
“After that whole bill was passed, after I read the bill, I realized personally I made a mistake,” Coffman said.
“I just don’t think the state should be in the business of trying to develop land make money,” he later added.
Coffman attributed the oversight to his own busy legislative duties, saying he relied too much on the recommendations of the committee chair.
He acknowledged he made the same mistake again when he voted for the bill on the House floor, after the bill had gone through review by other Legislative leaders.
“A lot of bills pass through by the 100s by the 50s,” Coffman said. “In many cases, you trust that the chair is doing the right thing.”
Groups opposed to the PLDC, such as the Sierra Club, also say they were caught off guard by its formation.
Throughout its three-month-long consideration in the Legislature, testimony was largely directed at the bill’s second purpose, to allow commercial use permits for vessels at Ala Wai and Keehi harbors.
“As the legislation moved forward, yes, it was not on the radar,” said Sierra Club of Hawaii President Robert Harris.
“Some of the worst parts of the statute were put in at the very last second.”
The exemptions were added almost two months before the bill’s final approval, though it occurred in the second to last committee meeting.
After the protests started, the PLDC has made some changes to its proposed rules, including removing for now a section on the procedures for financing infrastructure improvements for projects.
Some council members expressed concern that the counties would be left footing the bill for new roads and sidewalks.
A public hearing on the changes to the draft rules will be held today in Honolulu.
Harris said the Sierra Club isn’t satisfied with the changes and will seek repeal of the PLDC next legislative session.
Nakashima said he is open to making changes to the PLDC but thinks repeal goes too far.
“If folks are concerned bout the bill and have an amendment to offer, than I think we’d be much more open … rather than just get rid of the entire legislation,” he said.
Supporters of the PLDC may have a hard case to make for preserving it.
Twenty-five legislators elected on Nov. 6 support repealing the PLDC, according to “Grand Theft Aina,” a website made by opponents of the agency.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.