Preventing disaster through community collaboration
By Gabe Johnson
Although so much has changed since the devastating fires of Aug. 8, the principles of good government remain the same. Local leaders must make decisions to address the concerns of residents.
I heard the community loud and clear—that the county should ensure such a terrible disaster never happens again. Many of the current recovery proposals include ideas that aren’t new, and I want to acknowledge the frustration of residents who point out that some of these “no-brainer” solutions should have been implemented decades ago.
Community members continue to desire a diversified economy, better stewardship of our natural resources, increased housing opportunities and regenerative land management. These concerns are the reason I ran for council, and I aim to work with my colleagues to address these issues.
When I was chair of the Affordable Housing Committee last term, I created legislation that made affordable housing truly affordable and worked to ensure that the local people were prioritized. Today, as chair of the Agriculture, Diversification, Environment and Public Transportation (ADEPT) Committee, I am just as committed to hearing your concerns and turning your voice into legislation.
Here are some of the initiatives that my office has been working on since August.
Undergrounding power lines: I authored Bill 90 (2023) to require that new utility lines are placed underground in all subdivisions. This policy change will help keep our community safe and prevent further catastrophes. The bill is based on a law that has been in place in the City and County of Honolulu since the 1960s and will continue to be discussed in the Water and Infrastructure Committee.
Increased access to housing and agricultural land: After collaborating with local farmers and ranchers involved in the Agricultural Working Group, I introduced a bill that will allow the family members of agricultural workers to live in farm-labor dwellings. This bill defines a farm as one that uses 51% of “useable” land, increases housing opportunities for families and helps farmers and ranchers efficiently get the support they need and has been referred to the Planning Commissions for review.
Addressing unmanaged fallow lands: This week I introduced Bill 103 (2023) that proposes that we include three tax tiers for agricultural land. During budget deliberations, I want to spearhead that we raise taxes on fallow land, to strongly encourage large landowners to utilize their parcels for active agriculture. This bill also requires the Department of Agriculture to assist in verifying appropriate use of agriculturally zoned lands and ensure that landowners fulfill their obligation to keep those lands productive.
Requiring recycled water to be R-1: At the ADEPT Committee meeting on Oct. 19, I revived Bill 52 (2022), which would require that wastewater discharged by county facilities be disinfected to R-1 standards. Post wildfire, this bill takes on a whole new meaning. Not only is the bill a step toward ending our reliance on injection wells but expanding R-1 water use to irrigate ag land, native landscapes and greenbelts will help us create a resilient island.
Enforcement of hazard removal under power lines and around communities: I am in communication with the Fire Chief and Director of Public Works to strengthen the enforcement of removing hazardous vegetation under power lines and to create larger buffer zones between wildland and urban areas. I will also continue working with fire experts to craft legislation that will prevent wildfires from easily spreading to residential and commercial zones.
Keeping Lāhainā lands in Lāhainā hands: My office is assisting the creation of a Lāhainā Land Trust to support fire-impacted homeowners who need to sell their properties and want to ensure their land is not purchased by off-island investors. This initiative will allow homeowners to re-purchase their property in the future.
The road to recovery will be long and challenging, but these policy changes are ways to prevent a similar event from happening again. As we move forward from this tragedy, your input will be even more important and will ensure that our solutions reflect the kind of good government in Maui County that you want to see.
As my colleagues and I continue to work for you, please continue to share your voices with us.
*Gabe Johnson is the chair of the Agriculture, Diversification, Environment and Public Transportation Committee. He holds the county council seat for the Lānaʻi residency area. “Council’s 3 Minutes” is a column to explain the latest news on county legislative and community matters. Go to mauicounty.us for more information.