Hawaii County planning

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Private land use in Hawaii is highly regulated by a dual system of state and county laws. There are also federal laws that affect land use, such as wetland protection. Federal lands (such as the national parks) are not covered by state and county land use laws. [1]

State land use classifications

All land in Hawaii is classified into one of four classifications:

  1. Conservation (about 51% of the land on Hawai'i Island),
  2. Agricultural (about 46%),
  3. Rural (less than 1%), and
  4. Urban(about 2.5%).

The boundaries were initially set by the State Land Use Commission (LUC), a body of nine members appointed by the Governor. Changes to the boundaries can be done by ordinance of the County Council for areas of 15 acres or less, otherwise, the LUC must approve changes by a 6-3 vote. Only the LUC can take land out of the Conservation District. Typically, boundary amendments are initiated by landowner application and reviewed on a case-by-case basis, but the law also allows the state to conduct a periodic boundary review. [2]

Conservation District

Except for land that is also in the Special Management Area (SMA), as explained in more detail below, the Conservation District is solely under State jurisdiction. The Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has administrative responsibility over the Conservation District. [3]

Agricultural District

The County administers the Agricultural District within the framework of the State land use law. State law and LUC rules limit uses in the agricultural district, most of them relating to agriculture, including mills and other processing facilities, but allowing some non-agricultural uses such as wind energy facilities.

On lots created by subdivisions approved after June 4, 1976, homes are supposed to be “farm dwellings”, or otherwise accessory to agriculture, but in pre-June 4, 1976 subdivisions the homes can be “singlefamily dwellings.”

Lot sizes for subdivisions in the Agricultural District are set by the County Council through zoning, but must be at least one acre by state law.

The “special permit” process potentially allows a wide range of other uses. A special permit can be issued for any “unusual and reasonable” use. For areas of 15 acres or less, the County Planning Commission decides the special permit. For more than 15 acres, the special permit must be approved by both the Planning Commission and the State Land Use Commission. Examples of common special permits are bed-and-breakfast operations and cell phone towers. [4]

Rural District

There are only three significant differences between the Rural District and the Agricultural District:

  1. homes can be single-family dwellings, even on post-June 4, 1976 subdivisions,
  2. the minimum lot size is ½ acre (with an exception to 18,500 ft2), and
  3. since a recent change in the law in 2005, golf courses are permitted in Rural, but not in the Agricultural District (although golf courses previously built or approved by the counties in the Agricultural District remain legal.) [5]

Urban District

The urban district is entirely under county jurisdiction and uses are controlled only by county zoning. [6]

County Land Use System

General Plan

The General Plan is the overall guide to county land use decisions like zoning. The General Plan is an ordinance enacted by the County Council. The current General Plan was enacted in February 2005. The General Plan consists of a written portion, which has a set of goals, policies, standards, and courses of action, and maps. The text also includes a list of the urban, industrial, and resort areas. The maps include the “Land Use Pattern Allocation Guide Map” or “LUPAG” map, which gives the general location of land uses in the county.

When the County Council is considering a change of zone, or when the Planning Commission is considering an SMA permit, a special permit, or a use permit, the decision is supposed to be consistent with the goals, policies, standards, and courses of action in the General Plan, and also consistent with the LUPAG map.

Amendments to the General Plan can be initiated by the Planning Director or the Council, and must be approved by the Council by ordinance. In most cases, however, the lines on the LUPAG map are not exact; they are meant to show the general location of potential uses.

The General Plan also contains facilities maps. The roadway facilities map is particularly important because it is supposed to guide future highway development on the island, and thus guides county CIP decisions. [7]

Community Development Plans

Since 1971, the General Plan has called for community development plans. The community development plans are supposed to be more specific and more tailored to the desires of various communities. Over the years, the county has not kept up with community development plans.

The 2005 General Plan called for a revival of this process and included a mandate that they be adopted by ordinance. Currently, the county is working on new community development plans for Kona and Puna. [8]


Zoning is the main county land use control. All areas on the island, except for federal lands like the national parks, and some areas in the conservation district, are zoned. The Zoning Code lists the permitted uses within each zone, and also the required setbacks, height limits, parking areas for commercial developments, and other controls.

Within each type of zone, the zoning also controls the density. For example, an “RS-10” zone is a single-family residential zone with a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet; an RM- 2.5 zone is a multi-family zone, allowing apartment buildings, with a maximum density of one unit for every 2500 square feet of land; an A-5a zone is an agricultural zone with a minimum lot size of 5 acres.

We did not have island-wide zoning until 1967. Before that, only Hilo and some of the other towns were zoned. In 1967, a set of zoning maps were adopted by ordinance covering the entire island. Since then, zone changes are made through rezoning. Zoning changes are reviewed by the Planning Commission, but must be finally approved by the County Council through ordinance. There have been roughly 1000 individual zoning changes in the past 35 years.

Every zone will have a list of “permitted” uses, that are allowed outright without further approvals (except for needing “ministerial” permits—see explanation below—like building permits.) For example, “automobile service stations” are a permitted use in a “CV” (“Village Commercial”) zone, but not in an RS zone. If a use is not listed, it is not allowed in that zone. A few other uses can be allowed by “Use Permit”, which must be approved by the Planning Commission. For example, a church can be allowed in an RS zone with a use permit. [9]

Special Management Area (SMA)

The “Special Management Area” or “SMA” is an area that gets additional scrutiny. The SMA law is mostly intended to protect the environmental resources of the coastal area. The SMA maps were enacted by the Planning Commission by rule, and can be amended by the Planning Commission.

The SMA is the area from the shoreline to the “SMA line”, which is plotted on these maps. The SMA varies greatly in width on different parts of the island—from almost nothing to over a mile. Within the SMA, “development”, as defined in the SMA rules, needs either a “major” permit, which is issued by the Planning Commission, or a “minor” permit, which is issued by the Planning Director. A project needs a major permit if it is valued at over $125,000, or if the Planning Director determines that it may have a significant environmental or ecological effect in the SMA.

The SMA law also lists certain kinds of development as “exempt”, and not needing a permit, unless, again, the Planning Director determines that it may have a significant environmental or ecological effect in the SMA. The most common “exempt”action is the construction of a single-family home that is not part of a larger project. The SMA law also applies to governmental actions, so new highways and public beach parks, for example, will need SMA permits if located in the SMA. [10]

Board of Appeals

The County Charter establishes a Board of Appeals, which consists of seven members appointed by the mayor. The Board of Appeals can overrule final decisions made by the Planning Director and the Director of Public Works. For example, if the Planning Director denies a subdivision variance and the applicant appeals, the Board of Appeals can overrule the denial, but only if it finds that the Director’s decision was arbitrary, capricious, or an abuse of discretion, contrary to law, or clearly erroneous. [11]

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