A delegation of 12 rural planners and technical support staff from Palau traveled to Hilo for a weeklong Palau-Hawai’i Zoning Learning Exchange from January 28 to February 3, 2023. The delegation learned philosophies, skills, tools, and practices for implementing land use plans and zoning codes from the County of Hawai’i Planning Department and strengthened an existing relationship with the Office of the Mayor.
The County of Hawai’i, Hawaii State’s largest island, has a similar tropical geography and is facing many of the same climate change issues as Palau. Hawai’i first instituted land use planning and zoning in the 1960s, and since then has developed a streamlined system for issuing administrative and discretionary permits for land uses, variances, and changes to zones. 10 States on Babeldaob and Peleliu have completed State Master Plans and have finished or are nearing completion of Land Use Plans and Zoning Codes, and thus building capacity for their implementation was a key goal of the Exchange.
Representatives from states with active and legislated Planning Commissions were invited to attend the Exchange as part of the Palau Biodiversity Project (GEF6) with funding support from the R2R Sustainable Land Management Project (GEF5). The delegation was led by Governor Ilolang Remengesau on behalf of the Palau Governors Association. Participants included the State Planner from Ngarchelong and Commissioners from Planning Commissions in Ngiwal, Ngchesar, Airai, Ngatpang, and Ngeremlengui. A technical team from MAFE, PALARIS, and PCS organized the Exchange and also attended. One representative from Aimeliik State, where the Planning Commission legislation is in its final stages of legislative approval and with a MPA facing issues of runoff, was sponsored by the MAFE Bureau of Fisheries. An additional participant from PALARIS was sponsored by the Ministry of Finance as part of the nation’s street naming and addressing initiative.
The Exchange kicked off with a Meet-and-Greet with Mayor Mitch Roth. Mayor Roth had visited Palau in April 2022 for the Our Ocean Conference and reminisced fondly about the hospitality and friendship he received while here, saying that he was happy to be able to invite the delegation to Hawai’i and share expertise and strengthen bonds. Governor Remengesau presented Mayor Roth with an elaborate storyboard showing the Legend of Ngibtal, noting its lessons about sustainable use, and officially thanked him and the County staff for hosting the Palau delegation.
The first day of the Exchange also featured a Meet-and-Greet with the Director of the County of Hawai’i Planning Department, Mr. Zendo Kern, and managers from long-range planning, administrative permitting, discretionary permitting, GIS, and more. Governor Remengesau presented Mr. Kern with a storyboard from Palau, and each person received a shirt featuring the Palau Biodiversity Project logo.
The delegation first learned about the County General Plan, which is similar to State Master Plans. A key lesson learned was that the first plan, and the zoning map it adopts, will leave a long-lasting legacy and must carefully operationalize the community’s desires. In explaining their philosophy, Mr. Kern asked the delegation to consider: “Are we moving towards what we want or are we moving away from what we don’t want?” The only way to get what we want is to plan for it proactively. Planning for what we don’t want means we could end up somewhere else.
The second day of the Exchange focused on implementing the zoning code via Administrative Permits, which will be similar to Principle Uses permitting in Palau. The delegation learned about flowcharts, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), variances, setbacks, and other tools and codes. The Hawai’i team had reviewed Palau’s draft rural zoning code in advance, and provided technical advice on improving the document, particularly by strengthening legal definitions, explicitly allowing more uses, and being clearer about the intent of each zone. Palau planners immediately began reviewing and updating state draft codes upon their return. The Hawai’i team also explained their system of complaints, which might be an appropriate system of enforcement for Palau.
The third day of the Exchange was about long-range planning and discretionary permitting (like Conditional and Special Uses permitting in Palau), where participation from the community and transparent decisions by a Planning Commission are vital. Mr. Kern explained discretionary permitting like this: “A + B = C: Law + Politics = Decision.” He said that the Commission’s mission is not to make everyone happy, but to find something that everyone can live with. Also on the third day, PALARIS’s GIS experts received individual technical assistance from County GIS and mapping staff, who helped them figure out methods for street addressing and numbering. “I’m excited to take what we learned and implement it,” said MAFE/PALARIS GIS Expert Ophelia Ongalibang. “It was good to see how they do street addressing. They helped us conceptualize it for ourselves, and we realized we were being too complicated.”
The third day of the Commission also featured a technical presentation about Shoreline Setbacks and Special Management Areas (SMAs). Hawai’i County currently has a 40-foot shoreline setback, but with climate change the actual impacts on the shore can vary widely. Research is ongoing to determine a science-based setback that will help planners, builders, and homeowners avoid future losses from storm flooding, sea level rise, and crumbling coastlines. Said Siles Kesolei from the Ngeremlengui Planning Commission: “We should take into consideration what we learned and implement lessons learned in Hilo on the SMA. The impact from Climate Change will be a major thing down the road. We need to take another look at the master plan.”
The fourth day offered one of the highlights of the Exchange, with the delegation observing a monthly Planning Commission meeting that featured public testimony, recusals due to conflicts of interest, and expert input on a rezoning request. Hawai’i Commissioners then took questions from the Palau delegation, after being advised by their legal counsel about appropriate topics. With a “Sunshine Law” requiring open meetings, and as a quasi-governmental body with responsibility for zoning of all private and public lands, transparency is essential and public topics must be properly “agendized” before the Commission can discuss them only in a public forum.
After the Commission meeting, the delegation went on a tour of Hilo to see locations where permits, variances, setbacks, and more had been issued. They viewed examples of Public Notices, saw where climate change is impacting the SMA beyond the 40-foot setback, and examined sites that are mandated to include infrastructure designs in the subdivision plans.
On the final day of the Exchange the delegation visited the County of Hawai’i Planning Department offices and followed the paths of an administrative permit and a discretionary permit as they progress from intake through processing to final approval. County officials also illustrated their information organization system on their website (planning.hawaiicounty.gov) and provided the delegation with many detailed digital resources and examples. The Director also shared his philosophy with the Palau planners: “Remember we are in the people business and are public servants,” he said. “When I started I was looking for ways to say ‘no’. Now I look for ways to say ‘yes’.”
This Exchange builds on a growing relationship with the County of Hawai’i, who stated their willingness to continue mentoring Palau’s planners: “We hope this is a continued relationship for years to come,” said Mr. Kern. Said Sherry Koshiba of Aimeliik State Government: “The Learning Exchange with the County of Hawai’i, though short, was so enriching in that it furthered my understanding of why we’re working on developing master plans and land use plans to ensure sustainable development in each state.” The return part of the Exchange, when Hawai’i planners will travel to Palau to advise on zoning in the field, is already being planned. Zina Ringrang of Palau Conservation Society (PCS) added, “We should promote more of these learning exchanges for national and state partners so we can streamline our efforts.”
“Zoning is a good mechanism to enact change,” said Mr. Kern, in summing up. The Governors Association and the Palau Biodiversity Project (GEF6) are so pleased and thankful that this Exchange could take place and have such a meaningful impact with our community partners, and look forward to building on the knowledge and relationships. #gef6palau