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Department of Planning and Permitting hopes new technology will cut time for permit applications

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The city has closed its solicitation period for vendors to bid on installing a new automated system that is expected to shorten the Department of Planning and Permitting’s permit approval process by almost three months.

The solicitation was released Sept. 8. DPP spokesperson Curtis Lum said in an email that the department would not know until after Friday, when the period closed, how many vendors had bid on the project. Only hard-copy bids were accepted.

The city wants the new system installed by Oct. 15 and put into use by Oct. 31 once staff is trained.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi said the action was taken in an effort to remedy the long wait times for permits from the department. It also comes at a time when DPP is experiencing a shakeup in leadership after former Director Dean Uchida resigned at the beginning of September due to differences with Blangiardi over how to improve the challenged department.

“The prescreening process, which is basically taking upwards of five months alone … , we think we can be able to get that done in a day once we get caught up with the backlog,” Blan­giardi said. “We think the backlog will take us maybe a week to 10 days at the most to eliminate that.”

More than half of the permit applications reviewed by DPP staff during the prescreening process are rejected and sent back to the applicants for more information or corrections. The hope is that an automated process will allow DPP staff to focus on the more complicated applications and those ready for processing.

Prescreening mainly checks for formatting of the permit application so that it can be easily reviewed in the next step, during which DPP staff checks for compliance with city codes and ordinances.

DPP officials would not comment on how exactly the new prescreening system would work until after the procurement process is over. However, according to the city’s solicitation, the system should be able to automatically check applications to ensure they meet DPP guidelines on the sheet size of reports, adequate space for DPP stamps, proper file names, sheet numbering for drawings and other parameters.

The solicitation also requires the vendor to train DPP employees on implementing the new system.

It takes roughly 246 days on average — or more than eight months — from when a permit application is submitted to approval and issuance, according to a presentation by DPP staff during a City Council Zoning and Planning Committee meeting Thursday.

Currently, when a permit application is submitted, it remains in the prescreening queue for 110 days on average before review by DPP staff, which could take up to another 10 days, the department said. After that, the application waits in another queue for 81 days on average before undergoing a code and ordinance review by staff, which can take about 34 days.

It may then take up to 10 days for the permit to be approved and issued, which includes collecting payment from the applicant.

DPP said the new automated system should reduce the prescreening queue and review to two days total. The faster prescreening, however, means permit applications will likely stack up for code and ordinance reviews, with that queue increasing to 129 days from 81 days.

The code review process will remain at 34 days on average, but it should take only a day, not up to 10 days, for approval and issuance.

All in all, DPP said the new automated system will shorten the entire permitting process by 79 days.

DPP ACTING Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna explained that often during the 34-day code review phase, the application is back with the applicant for further work and not with DPP staff.

“Eighty-three percent of the time, because when these plans come through and the examiners look at it, they comment where there needs to be fixes or changes, and it goes back to the applicant,” she said during Thursday’s committee meeting.

“So this time, even though it’s counted, it’s with the applicant and they’re making changes or they might be holding on to it. So that gives you a better idea of the timelines,” Takeuchi Apuna said. “It’s not just stuck in DPP … there’s this ongoing process of the applicant to make the changes and it goes back and forth.”

DPP Customer Service Division Chief Clayton Shimazu added that although the new prescreening system is expected to shorten the overall permit application process to 167 days, it still could be streamlined. He said the 129-day queue for code and ordinance review could be reduced with more staff.

DPP is in the process of filling 80 vacant positions, as well as creating new ones.

Ideally, Shimazu wants to see the permit processing time reduced even further to 100 to 120 days in the next year, but he said it will take time to train new hires.

“I’ve got a challenge in front of me, but I can’t do it myself. I need the people and we need to understand that it’s not instant pudding, (it’s) six months’ training,” he said.

BLANGIARDI PRAISED Takeuchi Apuna’s performance as acting director and her understanding of the problems facing DPP.

“We have a lot of really good people in DPP who really know their business, and to be able to engage them, get them involved in the process, at the same time working externally, because for the stakeholders out there and not just commercial accounts but across the board, there’s a lot at stake with this department. That’s the kind of collaborative leader I want,” he said.

The mayor said he believes the problems at DPP can be addressed “internally, with existing staff and leadership within the department … . The feeling before was that we could do that with all outside consultants, and philosophically there is just a different opinion.”

Councilmember Esther Kiaaina urged Takeuchi Apuna to fill the two vacant deputy director positions, one created when Takeuchi Apuna was named acting director and the other when Eugene Takashi left department earlier this year.

DPP also lost Chief Innovation Strategist Danette Maruyama, who left with Uchida.

The department’s Land Use Permits Division Chief Katia Balassiano is also soon expected to leave. She has been the point person on controversial bills related to shoreline management, such as Bill 41, which would increase shoreline setbacks for new development.

Another measure, Bill 42, would adjust the laws for special management areas.

The department is also managing a significant overhaul to city land use ordinances via Bill 10, and is beginning to implement new short-term rental laws that were passed in April.

Kiaaina questioned if DPP had the capacity to move forward with Bills 10, 41 and 42 over the next year, given what she called the “chaos” occurring within the department.

Takeuchi Apuna assured her of DPP’s ability to continue to work on the measures.

“I think that if there’s concerns outside of DPP with these pieces of legislation that there wasn’t enough outreach or community engagement, I understand that, but I think, again, the department itself and our ability to move forward on these pieces of legislation, it continues. I have full confidence in all three,” she said.

During a Thursday forum with the American Institute of Architects Honolulu, Blangiardi expressed the need to have more conversations about Bills 41 and 42, and asked Council Zoning and Planning Committee Chair Brandon Elefante to put a pause on both measures, which he said Elefante agreed to.

“We think it needs more assessment, absolutely. I think we’re trying to be responsive on a topic that we believe is very real,” Blangiardi said, adding that while good-intentioned, the proposals may cause “some really unintended consequences.”

“Every time we turn around, there is something for us to look at more seriously involved with climate change, but we don’t want to put legislation that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

There will be a special Council Zoning and Planning Committee meeting Monday to consider Bill 10, the omnibus land use overhaul.

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