If it seems to you that the problems facing Maui today–more traffic, less affordable housing, stream flow politics, cane burning–seem overwhelming, it just means that you’re paying attention. Maintaining even our current quality of life on Maui isn’t easy, and making it better for the next generation can seem all but impossible.
It’s not impossible, of course, but it’s also not easy. One person who understands this better than most is Albert Perez, who took over as executive director of the nonprofit environmental advocacy organization Maui Tomorrow in May.
“The quality of our environment and our quality of life are closely related,” Perez said when he took over the executive director’s job in May. “Maui Tomorrow will continue to play a key role in advocating for the protection of both.”
Perez is a fascinating successor to Irene Bowie, who previously held the job for about eight years and retired in April. He’s tall, with a gentle but deliberate way of speaking. He chooses his words carefully. He’s spent much of the last two decades in Washington, where he worked for that state’s Department of Transportation, but he was also present at the creation of Maui Tomorrow–in 1989, he helped found the organization, and stayed with it for its first three years of life.
On Sept. 11, I sat down with Perez in the tiny Maui Tomorrow office in Wailuku and talked story about the nonprofit organization’s 26-year history, his current role and the future of Maui:
MAUITIME: Let me start off by asking you why you wanted this job.
ALBERT PEREZ: I really love this organization. I started it with Anthony Ranken and Rick Sands. I thought I could make a difference.
I was at an energy conference here in March, and that’s when I learned that Irene was leaving. I hadn’t thought of coming back, but said I would consider it. It was a chance to come back and continue with what I started.
Maui still has a chance to maintain its environment. The place where I grew up? Oahu? Well, they’re trying. People on Maui say they don’t want to be like Oahu. But if you go to Molokai, the people say they don’t want to be like Maui.
People from rural places want to have economic development. But when things start to change, they don’t want them to change. People who move here want to be here to make a better life. They have a right to be here.
MT: Where did you grow up?
AP: Oahu. We lived in Pearl City, Wahiawa, Waikiki–in a little bungalow that’s a parking lot now–Sunset Beach, Makaha, Mi‘ilani. My dad was a teacher for 30 years, and my mom was a teacher for 28 years.
MT: How would you describe your job?
AP: We do a lot of research on the issues. We pride ourselves on being factual. We provide information to the County Council, and to citizens who come to us for help. But our job always starts with research. We’re not a group that just spouts opinions–everyone has a role to play, but we’ve been at it for 26 years. If I don’t know something for sure, I’m not going to say it when giving testimony. I feel that we’ve achieved credibility, and are focused on maintaining that credibility.
We’ll send out grassroots alerts on something that we feel violates the community plans, or when the plans themselves are threatened. We also come up with ways for people to help themselves, because we can’t possibly do everything.
MT: In what way?
AP: The CleanAir Maui app is a really good example. For years, people had trouble reporting cane smoke through the normal DOH [Department of Health] channels. They weren’t sure if their complaints were going anywhere. But now, we’re sure they’re going to the state, the county. I think it’s played a big role.
We also used the data in our own comments on A&B’s recent ag burning permit. And we submitted 2,990 complaints [against cane burning]–that’s since 2013. Of course, that’s only a fraction–just a certain percentage of people know about the app.
If you think about it, there’s been a lot of development in the last 20 years, and now cane smoke is going where people didn’t used to live. You know the Maui Research & Technology Park will expand 11 times? There are about 6,000 to 8,000 units planned for South Maui–right in the path of the cane smoke.
This goes back to my point earlier: people who move here, who have rights, don’t want to put up with these impacts. Perception is so important here–your life experience is so important to your opinions.
MT: Do you have a personal example of that?
AP: When I was in grad school, I did a noise study at Haleakala. At the time, helicopters were flying 10 feet off the trails, so I took some noise meters up there. My first experience at Haleakala was just stillness–it was still where you were, but you could hear the wind blowing across the trail.
Most people, when we asked, said that the most important thing about the crater was silence. The only people who said “helicopters” were two people who’d been rescued by a helicopter.
MT: What’s the biggest issue facing Maui today?
AP: Enforcement, in so many ways. Of existing ordinances, zoning, conditions of development permits. In my opinion, it’s better not to have a law than to pass one you can’t enforce. Because if they know one law can’t be enforced, they tend to not follow other laws. I used to work in the Planning Department–an interesting research project would be to look at all the permits and see if their conditions have been followed through. My suspicion is that they have not been.
A lot of entitlements deal with affordable housing. When you add them all up, there are probably 3,000 to 4,000 units that have not been built. We’re not getting housing for people who live here. And the whole definition for affordable housing is wrong: if it’s higher than the median income, then in my definition, it’s not affordable. It has to be at or below the median income.
MT: This has been a problem on Maui for many years.
AP: It’s what I call a “Development Entitlement Industry.” People who want to make money purchase land that is cheap, like ag land. They come, because the land is ag and cheap. Then they change the community plan, the zoning, and now it’s worth a lot of money. They can flip it or develop it. The County doesn’t get a lot from that process.
MT: We’ve reported on this a number of times. Isn’t the County of Maui doing something about it?
AP: There was an impact fee study done three years ago. It was forwarded to the Mayor’s office, and then nothing. If we were getting impact fees, our infrastructure would be better, and we’d have more money. We’re not currently sitting in two to 10 hours of traffic like Oahu, but if we keep going, we could be.
If our County would take enforcement seriously, it would solve a lot of problems. I’d even be willing to see it privatized–how’s that for an idea?
MT: Not bad. Now what’s the biggest issue facing Maui Tomorrow?
AP: We need to ramp up our citizen involvement efforts. We’re addressing it through workshops. We just participated in one with the Hawaii Farmers Union United in Waikapu. We gave them a presentation on planning, the Land Use Commission, community plans, Special Management Areas, the whole process. It’s just a beginning.
We’d love to help everyone, but our bandwidth is limited. So we’re continuing to do presentations to empower citizens to get involved on their own.
MT: Now you spent a number of years living and working in Washington State. Why’d you move there, not long after helping start Maui Tomorrow?
AP: It was really hard for us economically. Maui Tomorrow in the beginning was struggling. I thought I could go to the Mainland for five years and then come back. Around that time, the state contracted me to do a West Maui carrying capacity study. They wanted results in GIS [geographic information system] maps. I thought, there isn’t any GIS training here, so I’d go to the Mainland, get training and then come back.
I was away for 15 years, then came back for a short time, then went back. I was there for 17 years total. I did learn GIS, and was a GIS analyst for the State of Washington Transportation Department.
My kids grew up there, and didn’t really want to leave. So after they got out of school, it was time to come back.
MT: What do you hope to accomplish now that you’re back at Maui Tomorrow?
AP: Increasing citizen involvement and preserving our rural lifestyle.
MT: Our rural lifestyle?
AP: There are so many benefits to it: not being stressed out by traffic, getting home to visit with your kids, beautiful vistas. Maui is showing off every day. You know, people on Oahu hardly use Hawaiian words anymore, or speak pidgin. It could be a generational thing, but it’s very disconcerting.
MT: How does Maui Tomorrow compare to when you helped start it?
AP: It was virtually unknown back then. Now we’re a respected source of information. We didn’t have an executive director at the time. We had a board, an advisory board that we still have. It’s a very active board.
And now, we can have very respectful conversations with our opponents. It’s a small island, and we still have to live here.
MT: How have you seen Maui change?
AP: There’s been a lot of growth. It now has almost twice the population. And it has traffic–before, there was no traffic light in Paia, for instance.
Back then, the road to Makena was littered with mufflers–it was pretty rough. You know where the Jawz Taco Truck is? I was out there recently, eating my taco, and I told my wife about that. She thought a moment, then walked to the side of the road–sure enough, there was a rusted out muffler.
Now it’s archaeology–which, by the way, is also a problem. Do you know why archaeologists working on projects never find a lot of historical sites?
MT: Money, I’d guess–they’re contracted by developers, who have a vested interest in there not being a lot of historical stuff on their property. Stuff that might require mitigation, preservation…
AP: Or could derail the project entirely. But we could fix that: developers should pay into a fund, then the State of Hawaii hires the archaeologists. Then they would be free to do their jobs.
MT: Not bad. What other changes to Maui have you seen?
AP: We also now have a huge problem with invasive species. And I don’t think the state is paying enough attention to it. During the fight over runway lengthening at Kahului Airport [to accommodate international flights], it was a big issue. I actually walked around with a brown tree snake in a jar and would put it on people’s desks…
MT: Um, where did you get that?
AP: A state official. I eventually gave it back. But in any case, we now have international flights–from Canada–and that’s without having lengthened the runway.
There has been good preservation–Waihee Dunes, for instance. It’s wonderful, and pristine, pretty much. There are old Hawaiian villages there. People can still fish and not feel like they’re in someone’s front yard.
MT: How about tourism?
AP: The amount of tourism is just astounding. When I was living here in 1990, Oahu had a resident-tourist ration of 9:1; Maui had 3:1.* I can remember going to Haleakala to watch the sunrise and being the only person there. I can remember going to Wainapanapa and being the only person on the black sand beach. There were 150 people there the last time I went, which was three weeks ago.
Tourism is very important, but we’re very vulnerable. In 1989, Dick Mayer said, “Tourism was a medicine. Today it is a drug.” We need to make efforts to diversify the economy. We also want to see more sustainable ag.
MT: Such as?
AP: A&B [Alexander & Baldwin] has said their livelihood wouldn’t be changed if they didn’t farm sugar. Now we’re vulnerable to sugar price supports and the worldwide price of sugar. We also have workers who have to apply pesticides or be exposed to cane smoke.
I think A&B should be looking at all those lands [they own] and ask what they can do. One crop on all 36,000 acres? That’s a really high bar. I think Maui would really be better if instead of pulling the plug on HC&S [Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar], they diversified. It would be better for the workers. I think there’s enough land there to grow more than enough food for Maui, for export, too. Maybe fuel, too. They could farm industrial hemp, though I wouldn’t want to see it sprayed. I know HC&S was doing experiments in growing algae for jet fuel for the navy.
But if they pull the plug, it will have a huge impact. I don’t think it will go to dustbowl–look at the old Maui Land & Pineapple Co. lands, which now have a lot of invasive species there.
But I don’t think cane is always going to be grown there, and we would be better off if Maui had a plan. And it’s better to implement that plan proactively, instead of in crisis mode.
MT: That’s a lot to deal with.
AP: We have so many issues, we just have to stay focused and do triage. But remember, we are not against all development. We want to see good, conscious development.
For more information, go to Maui-tomorrow.org.
* For some reason I had these ratios reversed in an earlier version.
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst