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Comments by House Majority Leader expose politics of SB755

April 20th, 2012 · 22 Comments · environment, Legislature, Sunshine

Thanks to Henry Curtis & Larry Geller’s Disappeared News for flagging comments by House Majority Leader Pono Chong on SB755, the bill which creates “temporary” exemptions from state environmental laws to speed development of certain types of projects.

Rep. Chong argues that the exemptions really don’t mean much because these projects still have to comply with federal statutes or undergo other public reviews. Okay, I might disagree, but it’s not an unreasonable or surprising position.

But then Rep. Chong slips off the reservation. Suddenly Chong goes far beyond SB755 by arguing that these exemptions should be permanent, and that legislators “are simply streamlining the environmental redundancies.”

Whoa, if that’s what Rep. Chong intends, then critics of the bill were certainly correct to be paranoid about the potential for environmental mischief.

Rep. Chong then winds up by charging community groups with abusing environmental laws by, of all outrageous things, trying to enforce them!

According to the transcript:

I have seen many cases, where people who don’t want, a project or a development nearby, use the environmental permitting process, in the legal tiddlywinks, to kill, another project nearby. They know there’s no environmental impact, but yet, they use the process, to kill the project. And, its ironic that we want to protect the environment but we have no problem, abusing, the laws, when it suits us.

In the process of trying to defend passage of SB755, he seems to have exposed much more of the political intentions behind it. In that, at least, he has done a service.

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  • Richard Gozinya

    …charging community groups with abusing environmental laws by, of all outrageous things, trying to enforce them…

    Yup, it’s those devious community groups! How dare they!

    Sounds like Pono ain’t so pono.

  • Patty

    I will have to watch Pono more closely..

  • Censored

    Pono is wrong. Environmentalists and cultural practitioners never abuse the process. Never!

    • Claire

      So how would environmental groups and cultural practitioners hijack a project, one may ask.

      Projects have costs and timelines…the larger the project the greater the cost (in general). If you throw more procedures, policies and processes that can’t be accounted for in the project timeline then those costs become big unknowns. At a certain point, the project becomes unfeasible.

      So on the one hand I think there is over-reaching by the legislators. And on the other hand, I think the *environmentalists and cultural practitioners* helped to create this situation.

  • ohiaforest3400

    Wow.

    Isn’t it more than just passing ironic that the Majority Leader is using a bill that is an extreme example of abuse of the legislative process as a solution to what he claims is abuse of the environmental review process? Seriously, this bill started as tax holiday for back-to-school purchases, morphed into a peer-to-peer gaming/poker bill that was killed off last year, and only to be resurrected half way thru this year’s session as a vehicle for a potential “let the bulldozers rip” blank check. “Three Readings”? Yeah, right! Do two wrongs make a right, Mr. Majority Leader? Eh? “Three Readings” don’t, either!

    Moreover, do you suppose that Rep. Chong has drunk just a little too much of that House leadership Kool-Aid and is going just a tad bit overboard on this issue, from “it’s a short-term procedural fix for a short-term economic problem” to “we’re gonna use an atom bomb to clear out a slow-moving drain”?

    This is especially disappointing because, as one of the relatively few legislators who previously worked as a legislative staffer, Rep. Chong has a sense of humility (if not humor), a self-deprecating manner, and an appreciation for persons important and not at the Capitol that is grossly the exception to the ego-fest that is our legislature. This kind of talk/behavior throws all that right out the window.

    Rep. Chong has now now irrevocably hitched his wagon to Calvin Say. When Calvin Say is no longer Speaker — and that time IS coming — Rep. Chong will find himself banished as well if he continues down this path. Perhaps it’s already too late.

    • Randy

      Pono Chong has a new district, thanks to reapportionment. His primary opponent is Jessica Wooley, the incumbent is District 47. This is a chance to show Pono that he is vulnerable. Could be interesting in August.

      • ohiaforest3400

        You may be right, but it’s going to take more than the support of Clayton Hee for Jessica Wooley to knock off Pono Chong.

  • Nancy

    Why don’t we have enough affordable housing?
    (or replace with any other development issue)

    Those pesky environmentalists get in the way of needed development and jobs.

    “With the best motives in the world, these starry-eyed idealists effectively have curtailed our efforts to provide new dwellings in quantities sufficient to meet demands.”

    Fred Mosher, President, Honolulu Mortgage Co. Ltd. as quoted in Star Bulleting and Advertiser, 7/8/1973

    Guess we’ve been needling the greedy for a long time, not really stopping them, but perhaps slowing their progress.

  • Carl Christensen

    The problem with the Say/Chong/developer/landowner argument is that it the true problem, from their point of view, is NOT “frivolous” environmental lawsuits brought by wacko plaintiffs and their radical attorneys. Any competent environmental plaintiffs’ lawyer knows that a truly “frivolous” lawsuit is a waste of time, scarce resources, and political good will. Their problem is that Hawaii’s judiciary, and especially its appellate courts, aren’t willing to go along with the “Who cares what the law is, it’s more efficient to do it the way we’ve always done it and ignore those pesky public notice and comment provisions” attitude that is pervasive in county governments and most levels of the executive branch of state government. Their problem is NOT that community groups are bringing frivolous lawsuits, but that those groups are bringing lawsuits well supported in the law and facts of the case and WINNING them. A while back, a well-known law professor was quoted as complaining that community groups were winning too many cases in Hawaii’s appellate courts. I would suggest that the problem lies NOT with the plaintiffs, but with government agencies and project proponents that simply find it inconvenient to comply with the law and aren’t used to being called on it.

  • skeptical once again

    There is a similar measure that would provide exemptions of a sort, SB 2927, that would allow the city to create new planning districts that would operate under special rules to encourage development around rail stations. The idea is that revenues generated from accelerated growth in transit use would supplant tax dollars used to build the rail. (This can be found in the SA article “Bill to Speed Development at Rail Depots Moves Ahead”.)

    There might be some problems with this.

    First, from what I understand, people generally do not want to live anywhere near an elevated rail line. They do not want to see it, they do not want to hear it. It tends to repel development. Rail for development is optimized on the ground or under the ground. This is a big part of the history of New York City.

    Second, my understanding is that Transit Oriented Development tends to flourish within a few miles around the Central Business District. At least, this is the lesson that I take away from Portland, Oregon, where TOD never really happened on the 55-mile light rail route (“55 Miles to Nowhere”) except on the five-mile spur north to the Willamette River.

    Perhaps this is because TOD is optimal where a genuinely urban culture can exist. That would be an area of two-dimensional high-density, mixed-use urban living. Having TOD surrounded on either side by suburbs can happen, but it is a little peculiar and in some ways might exhibit the worst of both worlds: the TOD clusters would have the isolation and sterility of the suburbs, but without the suburbs’ sense of safety and privacy.

    This also would tend to undermine one of the claims of the bill’s sponsor, Donavan Dela Cruz. The article states:

    He also wants to use these development clusters around the stations to create a critical mass to encourage growth industries that the state hopes to attract, such as finance, health care or high tech.

    “We talk about reversing the brain drain, we talk about diversifying the economy, we talk about focusing growth. What’s our plan?” he asked. “This bill is a huge first step in helping us achieve that.”

    This part is complicated. The theory that urban renewal along “progressive” lines can revitalize a region’s economy has become the conventional wisdom in place like Europe since the urban planner Richard Florida wrote “The Rise of the Creative Class” in 2002.

    http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0205.florida.html

    First, a TOD cluster in the suburbs – which might not even happen – would not fit into this model, and would probably resemble a conventional small shopping mall more than it would San Francisco. But it might happen on the fringes of an already heavily urban area. (Florida argues that to attract the Creative Class, a city must already possess the “three Ts”: talent, tolerance and technology, which the suburbs do not generally have, at least according to his theory.)

    Second, critics have argued there are other factors at play in the rise of places like Silicon Valley, e.g., the existence in northern California of a strong commitment to funding public education and establishing elite universities (Stanford, Berkeley) associated with a critical left-wing ethos, paradoxically mixed in with a libertarian, entrepreneurial, anti-government ethos. There are even places in Texas that are like this. But the west side of Oahu and Hawaii could not be more different.

    However, Donovan Dela Cruz might be on to something … at least, for TOD in urban Oahu, between Kalihi and Diamond Head.

    The Third City rocks! Go Donovan Dela Cruz!

    But the suburbs seem really bankrupt and a way of the past.

    Speaking of suburbs, today there was an article in the WSJ on the “Great California Exodus”, about millions of people leaving California, which interviewed the conservative urban planner Joel Kotkin who, in a way, is Florida’s antithesis. Kotkin loves suburbs and cars, and blames California’s decline on housing regulations, which he claims created the housing bubble. That is a myth; the bubble was poor people on the east coast and west coast imitating the rich people who surrounded them by buying McMansions. In fact, the car culture Kotkin glorifies started dying in the 1970s, and people are now moving into town. From an article “Inching Toward Energy Independence”.

    Although Southern California’s love affair with muscle cars and the open road persists, driving habits have changed in subtle but important ways.

    Take Tory Girten, who works as an emergency medical technician and part-time lifeguard in the San Diego area. He switched from driving a Ford minivan to a decidedly smaller and more fuel-efficient Dodge Caliber. Fed up with high gasoline prices, he also moved twice recently to be closer to the city center, cutting his daily commute considerably — a hint of the shift taking place in certain metropolitan areas as city centers become more popular while growth in far-out suburbs slows.

    “I would rather pay a little more monthly for rent than for just filling up my tank with gas,” he said, after pulling into a local gas station to fill up.

    From an article “To Draw Reluctant Young Buyers GM Turns Toward MTV”.

    That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the center of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence. Young drivers proudly parked Impalas at a drive-in movie theater, lusted over cherry red Camaros as the ultimate sign of rebellion or saved up for a Volkswagen Beetle on which to splash bumper stickers and peace signs. Today Facebook, Twitter and text messaging allow teenagers and 20-somethings to connect without wheels. High gas prices and environmental concerns don’t help matters.

    “They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

    There is data to support Mr. Martin’s observations. In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.

    Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.

    Cars are still essential to drivers of all ages, and car cultures still endure in swaths of suburban and rural areas. But automobiles have fallen in the public estimation of younger people. In a survey of 3,000 consumers born from 1981 to 2000 — a generation marketers call “millennials”— Scratch asked which of 31 brands they preferred. Not one car brand ranked in the top 10, lagging far behind companies like Google and Nike.

    However, it’s not just cars, but commuting that that has become less viable, and mass transit, with or without TOD, is still a form of commuting. What might be needed for the suburbs is to retrofit the suburbs to make them walkable communities with lessened transit to the urban core.

    But one area where Kotkin might be correct is that this cannot be mandated by government. California is legislating that its suburbs become high density. First, how they want to do this seems to still be transit-oriented and involve the commuter lifestyle, and whether this involves public or private transit, it is no substitute for walkability and decentralization. Second, as Kotkin points out, the response might be for Californians to simply accelerate the exodus from California. We cannot legislate people to live according to our random dreams.

    • skeptical once again

      And, its ironic that we want to protect the environment but we have no problem, abusing, the laws, when it suits us.

      This was the last sentence in Pono Chong’s statement, and the first comment in Henry Curtis’s blog entry comment section.

      It’s his reference to environmentalists, but also a pretty big Freudian slip as an unconscious reference to his own party and faction.

      As I have said before, the Democratic Party in Hawaii has a very big Jungian Shadow, and they consistently project an image of their repressed true selves onto their opponents.

      The local Democrats do want to protect the environment, but they have no problem abusing the laws when it suits them.

      Their Shadow reveals a kind of schizophrenic hypocrisy.

      Those kind of people also tend to be racists and elitists who hate racism and elitism.

    • Natalie Iwasa

      “. . . allow the city to create new planning districts that would operate under special rules to encourage development around rail stations. ” This bill goes beyond the rail, and it’s important to remember that. Any transit station, e.g., Wahiawa, Hawaii Kai, Kailua/Kaneohe, would be subject to these new “exceptional” plans if this bill passes.

  • Teddy Freddy

    Me thinks that Carl hits the nail on the head. Agencies and their private sector friends see these regulations as something to “get around” and so are always seeking exemptions or other reasons to blow off pesky compliance. Then they get sued. Then they lose. Then they blames the regulation for causing the lawsuit. Then they rush to the legislature and request an exemption. Then the governor and others buy into their incompetent excuses.

  • Claire

    “…the problem lies NOT with the plaintiffs, but with government agencies and project proponents that simply find it inconvenient to comply with the law and aren’t used to being called on it.”

    Yes, agree that this also happens…tax dollars wasted due to arrogance.

  • Claire

    This is mostly for skeptical who provides a valuable analysis.

    I disagree with “…people generally do not want to live anywhere near an elevated rail line.”

    This could be true if you’re talking about a place where there is a real choice of where to live. Honolulu lacks that kind of choice and also gets its in-migration from places other than the U.S. that are more urbanized and more accustomed to better forms of urban transit (e.g., Japan, China, Australia). So I don’t think there will be a lack of occupants if more housing options become available anywhere in the urban core.

    I think these posts offer insight into the generation that will be riding transit and wanting to live and work in Honolulu:

    From Atlantic Cities: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/04/why-young-americans-are-driving-so-much-less-their-parents/1712/

    Here’s Jarrett Walker (transit planner) discussing Jane Jacobs’ observations about transportation in the Death and Life of Great American Cities (ch. 18): http://citybuilderbookclub.org/2012/04/jarrett-walker-on-erosion-of-cities-or-attrition-of-automobiles/ “The doctrine of gradualness…is a splendid antidote to all silver-bullet theories of urban transformation, from streetcars to convention centers. Real transformation happens in people’s choices, behaviors and habits. It happens at its own unpredictable pace.”

    And here’s a peek into the mindset of the generations that will make use of rail if it gets built: “The idea that you move deep into the suburbs to get a huge house is pretty much over. Gen X and Y don’t believe in McMansions…the values we hold highest – marriage, community, and extra time with the family – are falling apart in the face of a long commute as we are in our cars commuting for so long and spending days far away from our communities during the day.” http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2007/12/20/how-to-decide-if-your-commute-is-too-long/

    • skeptical once again

      And here’s a peek into the mindset of the generations that will make use of rail if it gets built:

      “The idea that you move deep into the suburbs to get a huge house is pretty much over. Gen X and Y don’t believe in McMansions…the values we hold highest – marriage, community, and extra time with the family – are falling apart in the face of a long commute as we are in our cars commuting for so long and spending days far away from our communities during the day.”

      I like the statements that you quoted, and agree with it. But I have to disagree with the meaning that I think you attribute to it.

      From what I understand, young, educated people increasingly want to avoid commuting in general — in any form, be it by car from the suburbs or by rail from a TOD cluster in the suburbs.

      We all gotta move into town.

      Live in the Third City, where rail will work — without commuting into the suburbs.

      The west side needs to retrofit for walkability without rail, along with all the other suburbs.

  • skeptical once again

    This is from today’s letters to Civil Beat from Lowell Kalapa, titled “Zip Needed In Public Decision Making”.

    http://www.civilbeat.com/posts/2012/04/22/15623-zip-needed-in-public-decision-making/

    He argued that local bureaucrats are often indecisive, and that this is one of the obstacles to development.

    Whether or not readers believe that these measures will cause serious damage to the environment or to the safety of the community is highly dependent on your perspective and certainly the debate is justifiable. However, what these measures underscore is the slow pace at which government works. While some of the slowness of government action is certainly attributable to the laws and regulations that have been layered upon year after year, a good part of the blame lies with the reality that many in the public sector do not want to make decisions purely out of the fear that the decision might be wrong.

    I do not know what this signifies, or where Kalapa is coming down in this debate. But it’s relevant to this post.

    A more provocative letter is from Sally Kaye, “Access to the Grid is Key in Cable Debate”, and it is also relevant, I think.

    http://www.civilbeat.com/posts/2012/04/20/15617-access-to-the-grid-is-key-in-cable-debate/

    She argues that local monopolies are the primary obstacle to sustainability in Hawaii.

    I started with a lecture given at UH Manoa on March 13 by Economist and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. He discussed three key “man-made impediments” to a more sustainable economy here in Hawaii: the Jones Act (restricting shipping between American ports to American ships), the lack of competition in inter-island transportation, and (surprise!) our extremely high electricity prices.

    Stiglitz called our high rates extremely “impressive,” given that “you have a really big energy source here, called the sun.” A decrease in large-scale outmoded centralized generation, coupled with substantial growth in renewable energy, he said, should have made our energy price differential come way down.

    According to Stiglitz, we are not enjoying falling prices here in Hawai`i because access to our grid is restricted. This is a problem not unique to Hawaii, but the impact is more severe, he said, due in part to our geography, “which you cannot change. But you could have PV panels on rooftops and sell power to the grid,” thereby lowering the costs “to a fraction of what you are paying today.” So while “other countries are solving this problem by having energy supplied by small producers, democratizing energy production,” he noted that the “established electricity industry doesn’t like this idea because it means their profits will disappear.”

    Far too few people, in my humble opinion, are paying attention to this: IT’S ALL ABOUT ACCESS TO THE GRID.

    She notes that Stiglitz referred to HECO as a monopoly. But she notes that Stiglitz was not the only one who made that assertion.

    Echoing Professor Stigliz, local economist Jim Roumasset thinks that “high subsidies funded by tax and rate payers, monopolistic pricing, and picking-the-winners will shrink the economy. Since labor’s share of an economy’s product remains roughly constant, this means that employment or wages or both will decline as a result of these policies.” He says following “correct economic policies” would result in “adoption of renewables in due time, possibly with natural gas acting as bridge” to a low-cost renewable future.

    But with the current scheme? “As I understand it, the taxpayer could pay up to 70% of the cost of the system via tax credits, but they get zero equity. The cable construction company could then turn around and sell the cable system to HECO, which under the current regulatory system could in turn greatly increase HEI profits. This is Robin Hood in reverse – take from the poor consumer/taxpayer and give to the rich contractors and power companies. It would be much cheaper to just give them a chunk of tax revenues directly, with no strings attached.”

    It’s an interesting strategy the local energy monopoly is playing. If one signs up to rent-to-own a car or a television, after making all one’s payments, the customer owns the item. But with the energy projects planned for Hawaii, although the tax payers and rate payers essentially rent (subsidize and fund) the new infrastructure until it is finally paid for, they will not own it. The new energy sources might then be sold to the local energy monopoly and energy rates could then shoot up.

    Economists, both legendary and local, seem to be very disturbed by this prospect. But why does it seem like the normal course of events to everyone else here?

    This reminds me of the medical monopoly in Hawaii, which seems to have become more concentrated with the recent closure of hospitals. In my house a month ago, a sad story was conveyed to me that “Our friend went to the local hospital with a strange fever and pains, and they gave him aspirin and sent him home. Two days later he was dead from a kidney infection. How could this happen? This doesn’t happen on the mainland or in Asia but it happens all the time here….” I also heard a couple other similar stories that were almost identical.

    My theory is that people who are used to monopolies and being abused by them have very low expectations and do not realize the unusualness of local policy. Or, perhaps perhaps some societies even desire monopolies, and those kind of societies hate asking hard questions or making waves. Such a non-rational explanation seems compelling to me because the economists are mystified by these pro-monopoly policies in terms of energy development.

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