Review may yield shake-up of leases

Honolulu Star Advertiser - February 19, 2016
By Rob Perez and Dana Williams

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ controversial revocable-permit program could be in for some big changes.

Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the agency’s board, announced Thursday the formation of an eight-member task force, including several members from outside the department, to review the program and recommend revisions to ensure the process serves the public trust and provides transparency and consistency.

The move was prompted by several factors, according to the department, including a front-page story Sunday in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that exposed major problems with the program. Revocable permits are designed for the temporary, month-to-month use of state land.

The newspaper found dozens of the monthly permits that were decades old, including some that have not had their discounted rents changed since the 1990s. The Star-Advertiser also disclosed that the program has been operating without administrative rules, giving the department and board wide discretion as they rely on a relatively vague law to award and oversee the permits.

It also reported that some tenants are paying only pennies per acre monthly for pastureland.

Concerns raised by board members in December about a bulk approval process — staff asked the panel to renew 340 permits in one shot — also provided impetus for the appointment of the task force. In addition, board members voiced concerns about the duration of some permits.

Setting a relatively ambitious schedule, Case said she is expecting the task force to come up with recommendations to report to the Legislature by the end of April and that the new practices would be in place by the end of June.

Case told the Star-Advertiser in an interview Thursday that she will keep an open mind about what the task force recommends, but she knows the agency can do better by making the system more transparent and creating opportunities for competition for parcels. Such changes presumably would result in better deals financially for the state.

The planned actions will include a review of all existing revocable permits, and the task force could recommend administrative rules for the program, according to the department.

Changes are needed to improve the system without completely bogging down the process, according to Case.

“It’s a balancing act,” she told the newspaper. “What is the best process to ensure transparency, (public) notice and good practices with revocable permits that are efficient and realistic? You can’t have a perfect process. But what is the best process given our resources?”

Case said the board will begin considering smaller groups of permit renewals periodically this year, not as one bulk list at year’s end, as has traditionally been done in the past.

That will allow the board to get more information about individual permits and enable members to ask more questions based on that information, she said.

Critics of the department’s management of the program applauded Thursday’s announcement, saying they were pleased DLNR recognized that reforms were needed. But they cautioned that until the recommendations are unveiled and acted upon, it was too early to determine whether meaningful changes actually will result.

“It’s a good first step,” said Marti Townsend, director of Sierra Club of Hawaii.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, chairman of the Senate Committee on Water, Land and Agriculture, likewise called Thursday’s announcement a positive step.

“I’m glad they responded quickly,” Gabbard said of the department.

Once the recommendations are made, the senator said he plans to hold an informational briefing to determine whether proposed legislation needs to be introduced in next year’s session.

Gabbard this week shelved a controversial revocable-permit bill on the Senate side that has added fuel to critics’ calls for reforming the DLNR program.

Opponents of Senate Bill 3001 said it would circumvent a January court ruling, allowing Alexander & Baldwin Inc. to retain the right to divert millions of gallons daily from East Maui streams for agriculture and other needs.

Maui Circuit Judge Rhonda Nishimura ruled the four month-to-month permits that A&B has held for the water rights for more than a dozen years were invalid, saying they defied the state law about temporary use.

A House version of the bill, HB 2501, is still alive.

In her interview with the newspaper, Case said revocable permits enable the department to get tenants on state land — some of it remote or landlocked — that otherwise would be unoccupied, reducing the state’s potential liability and such issues as fire and health hazards.

“There are a lot of things that could come up with unoccupied land that’s a huge headache for us,” she added.