It's people's right to use the charter to protect the land
By Isaac Moriwake
Once every 10 years or so, "we the people" of the City and County of Honolulu enjoy a special right. We have the opportunity to vote on proposed changes to the City Charter — which is basically the city's constitution.
This is democracy in its purest form. Normally, our elected officials make decisions for us, but votes on charter amendments let the people directly decide the future of our island community.
This November, the people's voice will be stronger than ever, should certain proposals make it onto the general election ballot. These include a number of path-breaking measures seeking to protect the land and environment of O'ahu for present and future generations, including a proposal that would set "urban growth boundaries" and "agricultural protection zones" to preserve rapidly vanishing open space and agricultural land; and a proposal that would require any urbanization of land designated for agriculture or preservation to be offset by converting an equal area of urban land back to agriculture or preservation.
Critics of these proposals, consisting mostly of private special interests, have largely avoided addressing the proposals' merits. Instead, they have packaged their opposition as a technical legal argument — that such proposals belong not in the Charter, but in ordinances (the city government's equivalent of statutes).
Stripped of its legal jargon, their argument is this: these decisions should not be made by the will of the people, but rather the whims of elected politicians and appointed bureaucrats.
These critical issues of sustainability, however, are too important to leave solely to the transient occupants of Honolulu Hale. Council members and mayors predictably have difficulty focusing on the island's long-term vision when political pressure, campaign contributions and looming elections push and pull them every which way.
Consider Honolulu's decrepit sewage system, long neglected by elected city leaders because, when it's hidden underground and not bubbling to the surface, sewage rarely inspires votes.
The Charter is the vision of the people. It articulates enduring principles that all the people of this island share. On the other hand, our ordinances, for all practical purposes, are etched in poi.
The proposed charter amendments are precisely the kind of decisions "we the people" should be making for ourselves. Proposal No. 47 is a prime example. It simply calls for the establishment of boundaries for urban growth and agricultural protection, then direct that any change of these boundaries requires approval of two-thirds of the City Council.
Our current land-use system consists of an overarching general plan and development plans and more specific zoning maps and ordinances. In theory, the plans are to provide long-term guidelines for orderly growth.
In practice, however, our officials all-too-routinely amend the plans to accommodate development, so that development drives planning and not vice versa. The result is rampant urban sprawl, as seen in Central O'ahu, where developers are proposing thousands more homes in an area already suffocating with overcrowded schools and roads.
The underlying principle of this measure is that certain overall limits be set, and that they enjoy some degree of long-term stability and respect in the face of constantly shifting political winds, in a classic "constitutional" provision.
The requirement of a two-thirds vote to override these limits is no different from many other provisions in other constitutions, including, for example, the U.S. Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote of Congress in various instances, such as to override a presidential veto.
Critics claim that all land-use laws, including general and development plans and zoning, are established by ordinance. They also try to rely on a vague distinction between "general" charters and "specific" ordinances.
These arguments ignore that our charter contains very specific provisions on land use, such as Section 6-1511, which spells out detailed requirements for general and development plans. These include specific procedures and voting requirements and even a blanket prohibition on any mass-transit projects absent approval to ensure conformity with the plans. Proposal No. 47 is indistinguishable in principle and practice from this and other charter provisions.
Perhaps most telling of all, the City Council has previously explored establishing urban growth boundaries by ordinance. But, according to testimony from Councilman Gary Okino, the city's lawyer advised, and the council concluded, that a charter amendment would be "the preferred and most defensible approach to establishing meaningful (boundaries)."
There are other key proposals that have merit. Among them: a proposal that would establish an "Environmental Bill of Rights" requiring the city to protect "Native Hawaiian rights as well as Hawai'i's surf sites, beaches, beauty and other natural resources"; another that would establish an islandwide curbside recycling program; and a third that would set aside 1 percent of property-tax revenues for a land-protection and affordable-housing fund, dedicating millions and leveraging millions more in federal dollars to these essential programs.
These proposals would establish general mandates that every elected official must obey, and that will not disappear when a new administration or council majority takes power. These provisions operate on the same level as the limits on legislative and state power in the federal Constitution.
In the end, the crux of this debate does not turn on any spurious rule that land use must be limited to ordinances, or any foggy distinction between "general" and "specific" laws. It boils down to whether the people should be able to determine their own future. It boils down to a choice between "politics as usual" and "let the people decide."
Politics as usual has had more than its fair chance. Now, let the people have their turn.
Honolulu will soon vote on changes to its charter, but what role should it play in setting policies on land use?
'The City Charter should enhance the quality of life for the residents of the City and County of Honolulu: Provide an open, accessible and participatory government with justice and equality; organize government in an efficient and effective manner; enhance the quality of public services; involve residents in the decision-making process; and promote the sustainable use of the City and County of Honolulu's limited resources for future generations.'