Securing “social license” is essential for large-scale projects in Hawaii

In town planning jargon, some local conflicts 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 issues full of protests, complex litigation, and long-standing politics. The larger the project and the higher the stakes, the greater the potential for hubbub.

Hawaii’s planning landscape is littered with the corpses of efforts that have not come to fruition despite putting in place their designs, proformas, and funding. Hawaii Superferry. Large-scale geothermal development. A spaceport in Kau.

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

Communities, businesses and government can do better.

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

People overwhelmingly want safe places to live for their family and friends, but fight fiercely when it is time to build affordable housing or senior housing right next door.

Most people like the dollars the hospitality industry puts into the economy, but oppose low-paying jobs and tourist intrusion into favorite local spots.

And lingering are the public dilemmas regarding Mauna Kea, other places indigenous Hawaiians hold sacred, and the future of Kanaka Maoli’s rule and domain.

The deadlock on building a new telescope on Mauna Kea illustrates the challenge of bridging the divides between preservation and development. Blaze Lovell / Civil Beat / 2019

Not all proposals face major headwinds, but when communities raise serious objections the result can be a tornado of petitions, media campaigns, street protests, heated public hearings, and multiple opportunities to speak out. administrative and legal disputes.

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

“Good trouble”

From a different perspective, however, many of these brawls are what John Lewis called the “good stuff”. Lewis was talking about America’s deep racial calculus, but so are the NIMBYs, LULUs, and LURILUs.

Why? The crisis is disrupting the status quo, which is still uncomfortable for some. But it also creates opportunities to interact, deliberate, sort and balance competing values, think about what we want for future generations, and negotiate specific arrangements.

Communal clashes are inevitable, and they will increase in number and volume as Hawaii’s demographics change, available land comes under pressure, and 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 for community leaders and policy makers to address these conflicts.

First, we might recognize that some proposed projects have greater intrinsic value than others. Hawaii actually needs new developments that improve our state and bring broader benefits to the public, not just benefits to private investors.

Some examples of projects of general 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 rising sea levels.

Meeting legal and regulatory requirements is still necessary but, in itself, insufficient. Good projects must earn a “social license,” that tenuous right to operate, based on face-to-face deliberations over trustworthy plans and evolving mutual benefits.

Involve stakeholders

Social license can never be self-anointed. It must be won with a majority of community stakeholders.

With the current distrust of institutions, especially government, this becomes a major challenge even for proposals that provide needed public “goods”. This involves serious consultative dialogues between builders and the community and joint research that results in understandable sets of give and take.

The chances of success clearly improve if a proposal scores well on the triple bottom line: a project that is both slightly better for the local economy, the local environment and local social equity.

A good process paired with good solutions opens the door to lasting agreements.

Obtaining a community social license is hard work and it takes more than checking the boxes of the permit requirements. It requires courtesy and a mature approach to problem solving that includes truthful information exchange and intelligent negotiation.

Even then, there are challenges. The spirits are heating up. Discussions are hijacked by fire starters with other agendas. Elected officials bow to the crowds and developer offers sound like bribery while community demands sound like extortion.

The detailed architecture of the agreements is essential. For a good example of creative tradeoffs, look no further than the West Maui Preservation Association negotiated deal and Innergex power purchase offered by Kahana Solar in Maui.

But the process is just as important as the intelligent approaches to the substantive issues in dispute. A good process paired with good solutions opens the door to lasting agreements.

There is a Chinese proverb that goes, “Never test the depth of the stream with both feet. The objective of arriving at “maybe” always precedes any possibility of arriving at “yes”.

For savvy community leaders and project developers who wish to test the waters, a roadmap to the ‘right problems’ may involve:

  • Early consultations and realistic assessment of the situation for the possibility of negotiated solutions.
  • Organization of leadership, sponsorship, a working group, a schedule and a “table” proposal perceived as fair.
  • Obtain the participation of all relevant stakeholders through credible spokespersons.
  • Design a forum and establish protocols, including going back to the larger universe of stakeholders and rights holders.
  • Build a clear list and mutual understanding of the issues to bring to the table.
  • Organize productive and respectful exchanges from various points of view.
  • Gather the best technical, cultural, legal and economic information available and collate it into agreed fact sheets.
  • Discern the underlying and long-term interests of all stakeholders.
  • Arrange and analyze options, then make informed choices that maximize “joint” gains.
  • Work with parties who are not at the table to ensure the acceptability of proposed projects or solutions.
  • Ratify, commemorate and prepare for implementation challenges.
  • Ensure that the consequences are respected.

We regularly seem to rely on public meetings to gauge community sentiment. Large meetings are valuable, but they are not good forums for negotiation and problem solving. More often than not, the bulk of the work has to come from smaller coalitions of the willing who are willing to risk speaking with suspected opponents.

Community conflicts can be chasms and quicksand – or opportunities. Political leaders who want to play healthy roles can be crucial champions in promoting honest processes, if they can resist the gravitational pull of using them to crush.

James C. Tibbs