Gut Hawaii’s Environmental Laws to Make Construction Jobs?
By Susan Halas
One of the most controversial bills to emerge in this session of the Hawaii State Legislature is Senate Bill 755,which if adopted would significantly change the way environmental laws are applied to state and county construction projects.
Advocates call it a “jobs bill” which would speed up the public sector’s ability to get major construction projects underway and employ more workers. The “YES” side includes a majority of Democratic lawmakers, the Abercrombie administration, builders, contractors and laborers. They say SB 755 is necessary to streamline and expedite the development process.
Opponents see it as a full-frontal attack on Hawaii’s existing environmental laws and the public’s right to know and comment on public works projects and their impact on the environment. On the “NO” side are environmentalists, clean energy advocates, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and a few legislators.
With less than a month to go until the 2012 session adjourns on Saturday, May 5 this measure is drawing increasing attention on the airwaves, on the internet and in chambers. There is voluminous and detailed public testimony both for and against it.
As the days tick down it seems certain to become even more high profile.
As Dave Smith wrote last month in Maui Now’s sister website Big Island Now, “It started out last year as a bill that would have permitted certain types of gambling.” Presto-chango. In a “gut and switch” move it re-emerged (this year) as a measure that would exempt public construction projects from many current environmental regulations.
“The newly reformulated bill,” Smith wrote, “would exempt state projects from having to obtain Special Management Area (SMA) permits from their current source, which is the county planning commissions made up of citizen appointees. The SMA law is primarily intended to protect the environmental resources of coastal areas.
“The bill would instead transfer, apparently at least until 2015, that role to the state Office of Planning. It would also change state law to allow the Office of Planning to exempt a state project from having to obtain an SMA permit, and prohibit any agency or member of the public from suing the Office of Planning over such an action.
“The bill would also establish deadlines – the initial one is 10 days for the Office of Planning to take up the matter of a SMA permit – that if not met, would mean the project is automatically exempt from needing the permit.”
Destroy the Environment to Save the Economy?
“To save the economy, you don’t have to destroy the environment” was the way the Honolulu Civil Beat put it in an April 6 story.
In the Civil Beat analysis SB 755 is tied to SB 2012 – a $500 million bond transaction with funds to be used for things like school repairs, road maintenance and improvements to public building. But because all building has to go through environmental review, the theory is it would be a lot faster if all those projects could be exempted.
It’s All About Exemptions
If nothing else SB 755 is all about exemptions.
Here is a partial list of what’s in the bill as it now stands:
• Exempts specified state projects from Chapter 343 — the environmental impact statement law — requirements and environmental oversight;
• Streamlines the process for exempting state and county projects from the EIS law until 2015;
• Reduces the deadline for challenging the lack of an environmental assessment for a state project;
• Makes the governor’s Office of Planning responsible for issuance of special management area permits (SMAP) and shoreline setback variances for state projects until 2015;
• Exempts the requirement that the Office of Planning to hold public hearings on projects;
• Automatically approves a variance if the Office of Planning does not act on a variance request within 20 days after receiving the request;
• Exempts Department of Transportation and Department of Land and Natural Resources projects from SMAP and shoreline setback variance requirements until 2015;
• Exempts state projects from county general plans and zoning;
• Exempts all work in a state commercial harbor from any permitting and site plan approval requirements for submerged lands in conservation districts;
• Exempts projects approved by the governor from approval by the Environmental Council or compliance with rules of the Office of Environmental Quality Control;
• Requires that only the Circuit Court can impose any civil fine or other penalty for a state project
This list only includes some of the key provisions of SB755.
At at a recent hearing Gary Hooser, Director of the State’s Office of Environmental Control, objected to language in the bill that would shorten the window for judicial review of a project to 60 days.
According to Hooser, “The public has no way to know if an exemption has been declared,” he said. “So there is no way to know to challenge it.”
An opposing view was presented in written testimony by The General Contractors Association of Hawaii which supported the measure as a way “to insure that Hawaii’s economy will get restarted.”
With the election only a few months away and all state lawmakers up for review, this proposed law and how Hawaii lawmakers vote, may prove to be a weather vane issue.