Permit Purgatory

We can't offer paradise, but here are ways to cut red tape and avoid permit hell

Permit Purgatory

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Complaint No.3

Many clerks at DPP seem inexperienced. I often feel like I’m being sent on a wild goose chase by people who are unfriendly and make this process more complicated than it needs to be.

WHAt TO DO: Conduct as much research as possible before going to DPP. Take advantage of online resources and, if you encounter problems with staff, report them.

WHY & HOW: Challacombe says high turnover at DPP was a problem in 2003 during the last construction boom because many building inspectors retired. The city was also just coming off a hiring freeze, so the department was understaffed. Since then, all but one position at the Honolulu office has been filled.

“Like anything else, I do get complaints every now and again but I also get compliments about my staff members when they’ve gone above and beyond what they had to do to help somebody,” Challacombe says. “If the customer doesn’t get the kind of treatment they deserve, I do want to know about it.”

Since 2008, Maui County’s Planning Department has beefed up its staff by adding 10 positions. It has also more than doubled its training budget from 2007.

Tanoue says DPP does a lot of handholding for owner-builders – he calls them “weekend warriors” – who want to save money and handle their own residential permitting. “It’s like the old adage that 15 percent of the people take 85 percent of your time,” he says.

Over the years, Challacombe has seen it all: building plans drawn on paper napkins, customers who haven’t done any research and turn belligerent when asked for project details, and others who try to bend rules to cut costs. When customers aren’t prepared, it usually means they’ll have a bad experience.

Tanoue and Challacombe know about criticisms facing DPP. But they welcome feedback and say they use it to improve the process. “We try as much as we can, and we continue to improve the system, so that we make the process as user-friendly as possible, and we try to put experienced people up front to help people who need assistance.”

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi is also committed to improving the permitting process. “We have to let our construction industry and private business community know that, if they have permits or projects with the county government that will lead to jobs, we will work to expedite and facilitate the processing of those permits,” he says.

The Honolulu DPP office has two permit information officers who are retired DPP employees and address about 400 to 500 inquiries a week. They can take a quick look at your plans and tell you what agencies will need to review them or where you might face problems. The Kapolei Building Permit Center also processes building, sign and relocation permits.

Awana and Zabinski say the people at the department’s information desk have been a great resource. The DPP also provides checklists for commercial, residential and sign permit applications that explain what information and documents are required.

Your best bet, says Challacombe, is to check DPP’s upgraded Web site, which contains loads of information, will allow you to calculate building permit fees and review the status of existing applications. Customers must fill out an Internet Building Permit Application and are assigned a job number to begin the process. For those without Internet access, DPP has computers on-site. “This alone cuts down at least 15 minutes at the (DPP) counter,” Awana says, referring to the days when clerks manually inputted project details into the system from handwritten forms.

HONline, the city’s e-permit system, also allows you to apply, pay and print building permits for single-family solar, electrical, plumbing, air-conditioning, photovoltaic and fence work entirely online.

Poncho’s Solar Service was one of the first local companies to use online permitting. “We were kind of like the guinea pigs when the city first implemented this new feature a few years ago,” says company secretary Theresa Rhody. Each month, Poncho’s applies for 30 to 60 solar water heater permits. “With the online system, it’s pretty self-explanatory and we don’t have to fight the traffic from Aiea to town, pay for parking or wait in line,” Rhody says.

Permits Issued in August

Honolulu County:1,159 (valued at almost $99 million)

Maui County:132

Hawaii County: 275 

Still Got a Complaint?

Have a beef about the permit process? We want to hear from you. Send your complaints and anecdotes to We will include them in an upcoming issue and pass them on to the appropriate agency – anonymously, if you prefer.

Or you can go directly to the counties, which all say they want to hear about your problems so they can improve their services. Here is how to contact them:

Honolulu County:

Maui County:
(808) 270-7735

Kauai County:
(808) 241-4854

East Hawaii: 
(808) 961-8331


Love Thy Neighbor

Whenever David Tanoue, director of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting, attends public forums, he always tells people to be good neighbors. “If one of our inspectors shows up at your door, it’s probably because your neighbor filed a complaint,” Tanoue says. He says the DPP doesn’t go out to look for violations so they won’t know about the tool shed that’s built illegally in your backyard until someone else reports it.

“On the other hand, if an inspector shows up at your business, it’s most likely because your competitor complained,” Tanoue says.

Art Challacombe, chief of DPP’s customer service office, says that last year, the department received about 4,200 residential, 363 commercial and 853 sign complaints. “Times sure have changed,” Challacombe says. “It used to be that your neighbors would look out for you. Now, a lot of times they’re the ones turning you in.”

Speed the Process

Visit and review the permit checklists before you visit the office. Fill out the Internet Building Permit Application and schedule an appointment.

Bring three sets of plans for all residential jobs and five sets for commercial jobs so that you can submit plans to different agencies simultaneously. The information desk can tell you which agencies need to approve the plans.

This is a technical process, so plan accordingly. Complex projects require more review time. The speed of the process largely depends on the quality of your plans.

Be courteous. You’re likely to have a better experience if you make friends.

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