A plan to speed up the processing of building permits for one- and two-family houses won final approval from the
Honolulu City Council Wednesday despite continuing objections from the head of the agency tasked with reviewing the applications.
Bill 64 requires the Department of Planning and Permitting to process applications for one- and two-family dwellings within 60 days of receiving them.
Introduced by Council Chairman Ernie Martin, the bill was prompted by the growing number of complaints about the permitting delays. Builders, contractors, engineers and architects say the time it takes to obtain permits make it difficult for them to build houses efficiently, sometimes resulting in lost jobs, financial losses and even layoffs.
Several testifiers on Wednesday told Council members they need to wait a year or longer for their permits.
“We’re in a crisis right now in our industry,” said Bruce Kim, Atlas Construction Inc. president. Atlas said last month it had to lay off 30 of the 83 carpenters that it had on staff a year ago.
It’s already “commonplace right now for contractors to start work without permits,” Kim said. “They have no choice but to start the projects.”
Kim said the bill only would be a “Band-Aid” to more deeply-rooted problems at DPP.
Among the reasons given by DPP officials for the delays is a shortage of personnel and an inability to retain workers who check and review applications.
Gladys Marrone, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Hawaii, said the bill helps to relieve that problem because to qualify for the expedited time frame, the builder needs to go through a one-time review process. Applications would need to be prepared and stamped by a licensed professional engineer or architect who has not had a building permit application rejected more than twice within the previous two months.
In exchange for having completed plans reviewed just once, thereby eliminating a lengthy exchange, the homeowner needs to agree to abide by any decisions made by DPP building officials.
“So we’re just here to help and ease the burden of processing permits” Marrone said. “One year (processing time) for a single-family home, how is that right?”
Marshall Hickox, owner of Homeworks Construction and the incoming BIA Hawaii president, said the 60-day time frame being requested is reasonable and still higher than the time it takes for most other jurisdictions to process building permits.
“We’re not asking for the impossible, we’re not asking for something extraordinary,” Hickox said.
Kathy Sokugawa, DPP acting director, again testified against the bill. She said that while she empathizes with the builders of single-family homes, giving priority for the processing of building permits to one category ahead of others means longer delays for those other projects — including high-rise condominiums.
“We don’t think this bill will improve the overall building permit process and may actually cause a subsequent backlog … to other permit applications already in the system such as large commercial buildings,” Sokugawa told Council members. “It may even affect the actual inspection time for these projects on an individual basis.”
Sokugawa also warned that any one-time review permit means DPP officials must “decide whether we’re going to finish a complete review of their application or satisfy the 60-day turnaround.”
In that case, “we will depend on the inspection during the construction phase to assure code compliance because I’ve not heard anything (recently) …. that says ‘DPP, you should relax your review of minimum health and safety standards under the Building Code,” she said. “So we assume that is still our first priority, to assure that the buildings that get constructed meet health and safety codes.”
If non-compliance is found by inspectors during the construction phase, Sokugawa said, “we will either revoke the permit, (issue a) stop-work order or ask for a new permit.” That would require construction on a job to stop, “which means the construction workers, in our opinion, will have a more difficult time with that rather than an anticipated delay in the work schedule at the initial phase of construction.”
Ultimately, that also could lead to a delay in the issuance of a certificate of occupancy, she said.
But Martin, the bill’s introducer, said Sokugawa was talking about “what ifs” when those in the building industry are dealing with problems today.
“At the end of the day … the potential delay would be at the back end on the certificate of occupancy being delayed,” Martin said. Sokugawa stated it was a “possible consequence” of implementing the bill, he said.
Contractors and others in the building industry will recognize that “this may be an additional hurdle they need to overcome,” Martin said. “But given that … I can say with a fairly high degree of confidence that all of them would still ask that Bill 64 still move forward. Because at the end of the day, by not moving forward with the bill, we will have done nothing.”
Several bill supporters in the audience nodded in agreement.
Martin noted that the Council has convened a permitted interaction group, an ad hoc committee, to look deeper into the issues of DPP. That group will be able to look at “what can be expedited without jeopardizing public health and safety.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Sokugawa’s boss, has 10 working days to either sign the bill, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto it. Given Wednesday’s 9-0 vote by the Council, it’s likely a veto would be overridden by Council members.