Securing ‘Social License’ Is Essential For Large-Scale Projects In Hawaii

The standoff over building a new telescope on Mauna Kea illustrates the challenge in bridging divides over preservation versus development. PC: Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019
The standoff over building a new telescope on Mauna Kea illustrates the challenge in bridging divides over preservation versus development. PC: Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019

Honolulu Civil Beat | January 2, 2022

Not every proposal runs into major headwinds, but when communities raise serious objections it can lead to passionate protest.

By Peter Adler

In urban planning parlance, certain local disputes are known by their acronyms. There is NIMBY (Not in My Backyard), LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Use) and its first cousin, LURILU (Locally Unwanted, Regionally Important Land Use). And a new favorite, FIAIMBY (F**k! It’s Already in My Backyard).

These can be big problems full of protest, complex litigation, and long-running politics. The bigger the project and the higher the stakes, the greater the potential brouhaha.

Hawaii’s planning landscape is littered with the corpses of efforts that didn’t pan out despite having their designs, pro formas, and financing in place. Hawaii Superferry. Large-scale geothermal development. A spaceport in Kau.

The result? It is increasingly difficult for many new proposals, both small and large, to move forward.

Communities, business, and government can do better.

Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.” Right now a new landfill needs to be sited somewhere on Oahu unless people are willing to store their own garbage at home.

People overwhelmingly desire safe places to live for family and friends but fight hard when it’s time to build affordable housing or senior living units right next door.

Most folks like the dollars the hospitality industry drops into the economy but object to low-paying jobs and the intrusion of tourists in favorite local spots.

And persistent are the public dilemmas about Mauna Kea, other places Native Hawaiians hold sacred, and the future of Kanaka Maoli dominion and domain.

Not every proposal runs into major headwinds, but when communities raise serious objections, the result can be a tornado of petitions, media campaigns, street protests, passionate public hearings, and multiple opportunities for administrative and judicial litigation.

Sometimes the outrage is justified when communities confront developers with concrete evidence of unwanted density, parking congestion, air or water contamination, the displacement of longtime residents, cultural degradation, or the loss of access to parks and beaches.

‘Good Troubles’

From a different angle, however, many of these brawls are what John Lewis called “Good Troubles.” Lewis was speaking of America’s deep racial reckoning but the same holds true with NIMBYs, LULUs, and LURILUs.

Why? Crisis disrupts the status quo, which is always uncomfortable for some. But it also creates opportunities to interact, deliberate, sort through and balance competing values, ponder what we want for future generations, and bargain over specific arrangements.

Community clashes are inevitable and they will grow in number and volume as Hawaii’s demographics change, as available lands are pressured and as the need for smarter development and redevelopment increases.

In the absence of formal government decision-making structures below the county level, there are still ways community leaders and policymakers can approach these conflicts.

Foremost, we might recognize that some proposed projects have greater intrinsic merit than others. Hawaii actually requires new development that upgrades our state and brings wider benefits to the public, not just profits for private investors.

Some examples of projects in the public interest: New carbon-neutral energy developments. More local opportunities for food production. Better school buildings. More affordable housing. And improved infrastructure in the face of more severe storms and sea-level rise.

Meeting legal and regulatory requirements is always necessary but, by themselves, insufficient. Good projects must win “social license,” that tenuous right to operate, built on face-to-face deliberations over plans and the evolution of trustworthy mutual benefits.

Involve Stakeholders

Social license can never be self-anointed. It has to be earned from a majority of community stakeholders.

With the current distrust of institutions, especially government, this becomes a major challenge even for proposals that offer needed public “goods.” It involves serious consultative builder-community dialogues and joint fact-finding that result in understandable bundles of gives and takes.

The odds of success demonstrably improve if a proposal scores well on the triple bottom line: A project that is simultaneously a little better for the local economy, the local environment and local social equity.

Good process coupled with good solutions opens the door to agreements that stick.

Securing community social license is hard work and more is required than ticking the boxes of permit requirements. It requires civility and a grown-up approach to problem solving that includes truthful information exchange and smart negotiating.

Even then, there are challenges. Tempers flare. Discussions are hijacked by fire starters with other agendas. Elected officials pander to crowds and offers by developers look like bribery while community demands come across as extortion.

The detailed architecture of agreements is essential. For a good example of creative gives and takes, look no further than the negotiated agreement achieved by West Maui Preservation Association and Innergex’s Kahana Solar proposed power purchase on Maui.

But process is just as important as smart approaches to the substantive issues in dispute. Good process coupled with good solutions opens the door to agreements that stick.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “Never test the depth of the stream with both feet.” The goal of getting to “maybe” always precedes any possibility of getting to “yes.”

For savvy community leaders and project proponents who want to test the waters, a roadmap to “good troubles” might involve:

  • Early consultations and realistically appraising the situation for the possibility of negotiated solutions.
  • Organizing leadership, sponsorship, a working group, a schedule and a proposed “table” that is perceived as fair.
  • Gaining the participation of all affected stakeholders via credible spokespersons.
  • Designing a forum and establishing protocols, including looping back to the larger universe of stakeholders and rights’ holders.
  • Forging a crisp list and mutual understandings of the issues to be brought to the table.
  • Organizing productive and respectful exchanges of diverse viewpoints.
  • Gathering the best technical, cultural, legal, and economic information available and gathering them into agreed-upon fact sheets.
  • Discerning the underlying and long term interests of all stakeholders.
  • Arraying and analyzing options and then making fully informed choices that maximize “joint” gains.
  • Working with parties not at the table to ensure acceptability of proposed projects or solutions.
  • Ratifying, memorializing and preparing for implementation challenges.
  • Ensuring compliance with consequences.

We routinely seem to rely on public meetings to gauge community sentiment. Big meetings are valuable but not good forums for negotiation and problem solving. More often the heavy lift must come from smaller coalitions of the willing who are prepared to risk talking with perceived opponents.

Community conflicts can be sinkholes and quicksand — or opportunities. Political leaders who want to play salutary roles can be crucial champions pushing honest processes, if they can resist the gravitational pull of using them to stump.

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