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Roth: Building permit reviews to be expedited

As the county administration struggles with a backlog of more than 1,500 building permit applications stuck in its new computerized EPIC system, contractors and County Council members have more questions than answers following a statement from Mayor Mitch Roth that certain permit reviews will be “expedited.”

“Our administration is committed to working through the backlog, getting homes built, and getting people back to work,” Roth said Friday evening in a statement. “We have heard the concerns and understand that livelihoods are at stake. … We will continue to fight tooth-and-nail to build back better from the pandemic and create a home where we are all able to thrive. It is our commitment as leaders of this community.”

Roth had made streamlining the permit process one of his top seven campaign pledges last year.

The $15 million software dubbed “EPIC,” short for Electronic Processing and Information Center, was five years in the making. The county took it live in July.

Contractors raised the alarm in September, alerting county officials and the newspaper that something was amiss. While several declined to go public because of concerns about possible retribution, Honaunau resident Janene Lasswell, who’s been waiting for her contractors to get permits for her home, said her concern is with island contractors’ livelihoods as they await permits, hundreds of which have been dropped by the system and await human intervention.

“How it’s affecting contractors and their families — they’re actually being financially impacted,” Lasswell said Saturday. “Construction was the one bright spot, but their work is at a stop right now.”

Lasswell said the EPIC system is “buggy,” and she doesn’t think the problems are being addressed quickly enough.

The Roth administration attributes the problems to staffing shortages and “continuing challenges in growing the proficiency” of Building Division staff with the new EPIC system.

“I’m not criticizing the staff. They’ve been working their butts off,” Lasswell said. “They’re stuck with what they got handed on that plate.”

County Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst was already scheduled to brief the council’s Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, following a similar briefing last month requested by Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder.

“I’m pleased the administration has responded to the communities’ concerns brought forward by my office. The implementation of EPIC and the rush to adopt the 2018 Building Code have wreaked havoc on our local contractors,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “This decision is a necessary adjustment to address delays in permitting. In these uncertain times, the county must find creative ways to support our local industry and residents – livelihoods are at stake.”

Neither Rodenhurst nor a spokesman for the mayor responded to a request for comment by presstime Saturday. Rodenhurst had said at an earlier committee hearing that his department was trying to create workarounds while the software glitches were worked out.

The public can testify via Zoom by registering with relley.araceley@hawaiicounty.gov or (808) 961-8255 by noon Monday. The meetings are livestreamed on the council’s webpage.

Roth said in the statement that his office worked with Rodenhurst to come to an agreement on a plan that will expedite permits for certain projects, in particular the review of all residential building permit applications submitted before Oct. 1 that contain the proper certification of a licensed professional and for which construction will be performed by a licensed contractor.

Committee Chairwoman Sue Lee Loy said she plans to ask how many in the backlog will be affected by the new plan.

“My antenna is up because if we’re trying to provide housing for families, at this time I don’t think this affects them,” Lee Loy said.

Perhaps dealing with the contractors first could help clear the way for owner-builders, she said. Often, an owner will file for the permits and once they’re in hand, the owner is able to get financing for the project and then can hire a contractor, she said. The new plan won’t expedite those permits.

Residential building permits applied for prior to Oct. 1 by owner-builders wishing to transfer to contractor are not eligible for the expedited review, nor are permits applied for by licensed contractors that have been returned for corrections. Permits issued through the expedited process and subsequently transferred to the owner-builder will result in a suspension of the permit until completing a standard review, the county said.

Still, Lee Loy said, “it appears that the administration is putting their heads together and starting to think outside the box.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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