Three years ago this month Albert Perez took over as Executive Director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation. He helped found the organization in 1989, stayed a few years, then moved to the mainland, where he spent much of his time until 2015. I chatted with Perez not long after he took over Maui Tomorrow, and since then have seen him around the county doing the grunt work of a smart growth activist. He’s testified at Land Use Commission hearings, observed contentious Maui County Council meetings and checked out the January demonstration at the Kalana O Maui Building over the rights of kanaka maoli to speak Hawaiian in court.
I thought this week was a good time to catch up on what’s been accomplished, and what still needs to be done. He’s in Lake Tahoe right now, so we spoke by phone.
MAUITIME: Thanks for chatting with us. Has the time passed quickly for you these last three years?
ALBERT PEREZ: I would say it’s gone by fairly quickly. That happens when you’re busy.
MT: What have you been busy with?
AP: The first year I was here we did a lot of work in anticipation of the closure of HC&S [Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar]. I didn’t see how they could sustain such losses. We produced the Malama ‘Aina report. It’s clear that chemical agriculture is a losing prospect here. You have to ship in all the pesticides, and making a profit is very difficult.
But in regenerative agriculture, you’re not paying for pesticides. You’re making your fertilizer on site. That remains a big focus, which leads into a discussion of the whole water situation.
MT: What is the water situation now, in regards to Alexander & Baldwin (A&B)?
AP: It’s pretty clear to me and to Maui Tomorrow as a whole that A&B is not in agriculture anymore. We saw that when [A&B President] Chris Benjamin said not to expect a profit in agriculture. This is consistent with the business model. They hold the agricultural land (and get low tax rates), and steward the land until they want to develop it. Their focus is on commercial development. They don’t do more affordable housing than they have to. And they use their connections to change its land designation to urban use. In this planning and entitlement process, they have a lot of experience that’s an asset to the company.
This is a long-term strategy for them. Sugar was losing too much money, so they had to pull the plug. But they say they’re serious about agriculture, and that’s how they keep the water.
MT: What about the notion that Upcountry won’t have any water without A&B?
AP: The main thing people need to recognize is that Upcountry water is not at risk. It’s not a choice of giving water back to East Maui or to Upcountry–that is false. The real risk is A&B not giving water back to the County of Maui. The real risk is that our water system is dependent on a private entity and we’d like to see that changed. It’s poor public policy to have a public water system dependent on a private water company.
MT: How do you change that?
AP: We’d like to see it managed by a nonprofit. So we’re exploring options.
MT: Such as?
AP: We’re investigating how things are done elsewhere. It’s what we do.
MT: Are you optimistic about being able to change things like that?
AP: Absolutely. Yes. We have to be. A&B could change its mind at any time. Did I talk about the landslide?
AP: Oh. What if A&B is acquired by another company that’s not interested in supplying the county with water? Then what? Or, what if there’s a landslide and A&B feels it’s too expensive to fix the damage that’s done? That would not be good.
MT: Why do you think this situation was allowed to develop this way?
AP: I think we just kind of get used to the way things evolve. People were talking about the possible demise of sugar for a long, long time. Then, when it happened, people were shocked. But the writing was on the wall for a long time.
MT: What else are you working on?
AP: We’re working with the Hawai‘i Farmers Union United on a food hub, which is mentioned in the Malama ‘Aina report. Think of it as a big farmers market that’s permanent. Consumers can buy things there. You can get compost. There would be true farm-to-table restaurants. There’s a move now to make it happen in a couple different places.
MT: Such as?
AP: One possibility is in Haiku. And another is in Waikapu, where the Maui Tropical Plantation is, or maybe across the street from it.
MT: That’s promising.
AP: Now, in agriculture, they’re putting into practice several things we talked about. In the Central Valley, there are windbreaks now so they can grow crops. People thought that it couldn’t be done, but it’s being done now. It was talked about in the Malama ‘Aina report, but was deemed “not practical.” We’re just going back to some old practices. It’s very encouraging.
MT: What else is encouraging that’s going on right now?
AP: We have been working quite cooperatively with Maui Electric. I have to give a lot of credit to Sharon Suzuki, the President of Maui Electric, and Mahina Martin, their Director of Government and Community Relations. They ask us about projects before they happen now. I’m very pleased with how our relationship with Maui Electric has gone. We did a forum on sustainable solar management at the college–now that net metering is gone. And we did a solar tour–we invited the public to see solar with battery storage, so they can get an idea as to their options.
MT: What have you learned in this job?
AP: What I didn’t know before the Malama ‘Aina report is that chemical agriculture contributes a lot to greenhouse gas production. The chemical inputs are derived from petroleum. It also kills soil bacteria. An incredible amount of carbon gets sequestered in the soil when they don’t kill the soil bacteria.
What if we could make Maui a training ground? We could have sustainable agriculture here. People could come here, learn about it and then take it home? Who wouldn’t want to come to Maui to learn about climate change?
MT: Not a bad idea. But let’s talk about housing now.
AP: I’m told that back in the day, there was no workforce housing ordinance in Maui County. My understanding is that we wrote an initial draft, and then it was adopted. But when people talk about “affordable housing,” it’s not really affordable. You can make $100,000 a year and qualify for these units.
Right now we have a 25 percent “affordable housing” requirement [for developers]. But of that, only 30 percent of those units are truly affordable. Put another way, if there are 1,000 homes built, 250 of them have to be “affordable.” But only 75 of those will be truly affordable.
MT: So what are you doing about that?
AP: We’re working closely with [the faith-based nonprofit] FACE Maui, and we’re really pushing for housing that Maui’s local people can afford. And we’re trying to shed light on the AirBnB phenomenon, which is really a travesty.
MT: I’m amazed how much of housing on Maui is taking up by vacation rentals.
AP: Everyone on Maui knows people who are struggling to find housing. It’s really ridiculous. I’m staying in Lake Tahoe right now, which is a resort area like Maui. I’m in a three-bedroom, and it’s $1,300 a month. It would be at least three times that on Maui.
MT: Is there anyone out there trying to help the situation?
AP: We fight bad development–like 201H [fast-tracked] projects which get exceptions for everything and make a mockery of the county planning projects–but we also support good development–truly affordable housing for local people.
MT: What projects have you supported recently?
AP: Waikapu Country Town. We supported it. We testified in front of the Land Use Commission in favor of changing the land use designation from agriculture to urban. The developers respected the will of the community. It’s how I’d like to see developers act in the future.
MT: But respecting the will of the community seems lost on many.
AP: We have been battling the current administration [of Mayor Alan Arakawa]. They see community plans as just guiding documents, rather than having the force of law. Participating in the community planning process is very time-consuming. Their work should be respected.
The opposite of how the Waikapu Country Town developers behaved was the [Kihei] Mega Mall developers [who were trying to build large retail developments on land mauka of Pi‘ilani Highway that had been designated as light industrial]. After they lost the first round, they came back and tried to make a little bit of the project light industrial. But the South Maui Plan says very clearly that retail goes makai of Pi‘ilani Highway. We opposed it because we want to adhere to the will of the community.
MT: This reminds me of the fight over the seawalls.
AP: Look at the shoreline of West Maui. If the Department of Transportation (DOT) had its way, they would have armored more than just Olowalu. Our beaches are disappearing, and the whole West Maui coastline is a federally designated Hawaiian monk seal habitat. They’re a critically endangered species.
But I have to give a lot of credit to former DOT Director Ford Fuchigami. We filed a lawsuit [to stop seawall construction] and he was still willing to talk with us. That is unusual.
MT: That whole fight over seawalls seemed so unnecessary.
AP: Did I tell you how I measured the road?
MT: Yes? I think so, but I don’t recall the details.
AP: At 2am one Sunday morning, I went out there with a protester, George Burnette. He and I measured the width of the pavement at various parts. We determined that they only needed to restripe the lanes. They didn’t have to build a seawall. At the current erosion rate, that gave them 19 years to figure out how to realign the road mauka.
I told Ford Fuchigami that I wanted them to take seawalls off their go-to list. My understanding is that they will now do everything else first before trying to build a seawall. The seawall is their last resort.
MT: I can’t believe they weren’t doing that before. I mean, restriping a road has to be cheaper than building a seawall.
AP: The seawall was $3 million, and restriping cost $100,000. But I think things are changing at the DOT. I give Ford Fuchigami a lot of credit.
MT: What else have you learned in the last three years?
AP: I realized that it’s not possible to do everything myself, or even as Maui Tomorrow.
For more information go to Maui-tomorrow.org.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower