Kauai In Crisis

Mayor Bryan Baptiste deals with a garden of gridlock.

September, 2005

As government Web sites go, the county of Kauai’s is pretty impressive. Chock full of good information, from bus schedules to city council meeting agendas, www.kauai.gov is a virtual hub of information for all things city government. And, as avid Web surfers can appreciate, nothing is more than a click or two away from the home page, making it arguably one of the state’s most easily navigable county Web sites. Too bad the same can’t be said for Kauai’s roadways, which are a snarled web of traffic woes. The island’s two major state highways, Kaumualii and Kuhio, which begin on opposite ends of the island and merge in the town of Lihue, are beyond congested, and its county-administered thoroughfares are equally clogged. From sun-up to sundown, bumper-to-bumper traffic is the norm. During rush hour, traffic is downright unbearable.

At the same time, development on Kauai is far from idle. On the contrary, developers from the north to the south shores are moving full speed ahead, with over 10,000 new visitor and residential units being built over the next year or two, and a total of more than 16,000 new units coming online over the next two decades. Now tack a car (or in some cases, two) onto each of those units, and you’ve got a slow-motion train wreck in the works.

“There’s no doubt, Kauai’s infrastructure is just not keeping up with the pace of development,” says Louie Abrams, the Kauai commissioner for the Hawaii Real Estate Commission and longtime advocate for community-minded growth. “In theory, what’s supposed to happen is the county is supposed to build the infrastructure in advance of its zoning. But the reality is that back when we zoned all these things, we didn’t give much thought to what infrastructure was going to be needed, so all of a sudden we’ve given [developers] pretty much a vested right to go ahead and build, even though we don’t have adequate infrastructure, particularly if we’re talking about our roads and highways.”

It Should Be Obvious that’s Inadequate

To be fair, it’s not as though the state Department of Transportation, which is in charge of the island’s two main highways, doesn’t have any plans for road construction on the island. According to DOT spokesperson Scott Ishikawa, the state’s currently got two major construction projects underway: an expansion of the existing “temporary” bypass road in Kapaa and the widening of Kaumualii Highway from two to four lanes. But both projects are extremely costly and, even with the bold assumption that there’ll be no problems acquiring the funding, neither one is due for completion until 2011 at the earliest. By then, Kauai will likely have around 10,000 more registered vehicles than it has currently, increasing the need for even more road construction.

In the past 10 years, from 1995 through 2004, vehicle registrations on Kauai have grown 35 percent, from 54,860 to 74,322 (yes, that’s more vehicles than there are people). During the same period, however, there’s been very minimal road creation. In fact, aside from the construction of a few scattered bypass roads, major state road construction has been in short supply for as far back as most residents can remember, and the county doesn’t even have a dedicated budget for new roads. Furthermore, until earlier this year, the island’s county engineer position – whose job it is to oversee the Department of Public Works (including all county roadways) – was vacant for three whole years.

When Donald Fujimoto was finally hired to fill the position in April 2005, it didn’t take him long to uncover pukas in the system. “The whole concept of doing more with less is evident at the county. The planning department is the agency that’s supposed to be giving us direction on where we should expand and build our roads, but they’re so busy putting out fires, they haven’t even met with us yet,” says Fujimoto. “So for all we know, everything could be fine. Maybe sitting in traffic for 15 or 20 minutes to an hour is okay. I don’t know, because they haven’t told us.”

Former mayor and current councilwoman JoAnne Yukimura has the same concerns about the planning department, which is understaffed and overworked. “The planning department needs to plan their office first before they can plan the island. I’ve asked Ian Costa, the planning director] several times how he plans to transform it from a permitting department into a planning department,” she says. “Because we can’t just keep growing if the infrastructure’s not there, and it’s the responsibility of the planning department to figure that out, but it’s hard for them to think long-range if all they’re doing is permitting.”

The thing is, there is a person there, Keith Nitta, whose job it is to do long-range planning. And he actually does have a pretty firm grip on where the island is headed, in terms of development and growth. (Nitta provided Hawaii Business with a detailed map that we recreated, outlining all the development projects slated for the short-, mid-, and long-terms) In fact, Nitta isn’t trying to hide that, by his estimate, the island’s infrastructure – from the roads to sewer and water – has been utilized above capacity since as far back as the late ’90s. The problem is that it’s difficult, if not unreasonable, to expect one man to coordinate the long-range planning of commercial, urban and ag development and public infrastructure, particularly for something as complex and mammoth as roads. As Yukimura puts it, “It should be obvious that that’s inadequate.”

Caught Behind The Eight Ball

Despite the roads being already obviously maxed beyond capacity, and despite the overwhelming amount of development projects on the horizon, neither the county nor the state has taken the time to do a detailed assessment of whether Kauai’s roads can handle the additional capacity. Forget about whether residents and visitors to the island even want this type of growth to begin with – that’s long since been determined for them, with the creation of Kauai County’s General Plan nearly 30 years ago. The document, which can be found on the county’s Web site, is supposed to outline the strategy for growth on the island, but, ironically, the plan is a big part of the reason the island’s been caught behind the eight ball in terms of infrastructure.
“I think our forefathers, in their wisdom, created the comprehensive zoning ordinance and designated areas of growth with good intentions at the time,” explains Kauai Mayor Bryan Baptiste, who is very concerned about the pace and type of growth occurring on the island. “But we’ve since encountered obstacles they didn’t plan for, especially traffic, and our infrastructure cannot handle the volume we already have today, much less an increase in those volumes.”

Baptiste says that even up until the late ’90s, when the county’s general plan was most recently updated, its planners hadn’t anticipated things such as the timeshare boom and second-home phenomenon – both of which continue to attract droves of additional bodies to the island. On top of that, adds Yukimura, after Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992, long-term planning took a backseat to simply surviving. With everyone so intently focused on rebuilding the island, she says, the powers that be (herself included, since she was the mayor) weren’t able to sit back and strategize a long-range, comprehensive plan for growth. And it’s understandable that at the time, it probably wasn’t a pressing priority.

In The Event Of An Emergency

Now, however, the story is completely different. Everyone from the citizens on up to the mayor is worried the island is developing at a rate faster than its infrastructure can keep pace with. Even Sue Kanoho, the head of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, whose job it is to attract more visitor dollars to the island, is concerned about the rate at which Kauai is developing, and in particular the extraordinary growth of visitor units on the island.

“If you look at the growth in the number of visitor units on Kauai last year, it was 11.7 percent, while Big Island was only 5.9 percent, Oahu was 0.9 percent, and Maui was only 0.8 percent,” Kanoho points out. “That’s telling. So yes, I do think it’s really important that the leaders of the island take the time right now to look at the growth, look at the number of new units, and make sure we have the necessary tools to deal with that growth so we don’t put an extra strain on the island.”

Many people on Kauai are wondering the same thing – whether a coordinated growth management plan for both development and infrastructure is in the works, and, subsequently, if it is determined that the county is in fact developing too much, too soon, what is it going to do about it? It makes sense, after all, that if the roads aren’t keeping up with the number of projects, maybe the county should put the brakes on some of the development.

But that’s where it gets tricky. Nitta says that because the majority of the county’s zoning was authorized 30 years ago, it’s difficult to rescind the landowners’ rights. “For years, these landowners haven’t been using their land, but they’re paying the higher taxes on it because it’s zoned for urban use,” he says, adding that the planning department does, however, carefully scrutinize each applicant during the permitting process. “To me, get two categories of the so-called ‘builders of Kauai’ – the long-term guys and the rapers of the aina who come here, make money and Aloha! So we tend to be more amenable for the guys who make the long-term investments. And if it sounds like we’re discriminating, fine. But we gotta be hard on the guys who are here for the short haul.”

Others agree that there are ways to manage and control growth without putting an outright moratorium on development. “We do have the authority to take back the zoning, but it’s not about taking. It’s about doing creative, proactive planning. On ag land, for example, all you have to do is enforce that a farm dwelling is a farm dwelling and not a subdivided condominium lot,” says Yukimura. “Zoned urban use is harder, but you can approach the developer and say, ‘For every unit you transfer from an area where we don’t want density to one where we do, we’ll give you the right to build five units.'” The point being, she says, that there are creative ways to control growth, versus succumbing to the “Well, we zoned it so we can’t stop them from building it,” school of thought.

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