Dec 22, 2012

Searchable Database Improves Govt Transparency, Civic Engagement

Honolulu government planners do not have access to a system that allows them to access past precedent decisions to help interpret the gray areas of the land use code. It would be unthinkable for lawyers to practice without studying past precedent interpretations and legal decisions. Doctors also rely on databases for diagnosis and treatment. Yet design professionals and the Honolulu government operate on the urban fabric every day, without access to the knowledge contained in such a database. Instead, design professionals are forced to rely on their own individual memories and (sometimes flawed) interpretations that may differ substantially from person to person.[1]

While the Honolulu Dept of Planning and Permitting (DPP) does keep an archive of records, it is not accessible or organized in a way that allows it to be used as a tool to aid in decision making. For example, the existing filing system is chronologically organized by type of zoning action. Zoning Variances applied for within the same year are filed together, regardless of the section of the code in question or the physical location of the site. Therefore, if a Variance were approved, say two years ago, to allow a retaining wall to exceed the maximum height, it would be difficult for a City Planner to locate that file. The existing filing system does not allow users to search by keyword/ topic, or to limit search results to a specific time or location. Such results would help inform design professionals as to whether or not the City regards certain types of zoning actions favorably or with a high level of scrutiny. What were the factors they relied on to base their decision? Did the planner consider community feedback, noise impacts, or were adjacent land ownership/usage more important factors? If the issue is sea wall erosion, have shoreline variances been granted within the immediate vicinity? How many other homes in my neighborhood have been cited for having an illegal dwelling unit? Has it occurred recently and what was the outcome? This kind of knowledge is already contained within the DPP’s files, yet if the information were just reorganized, it could become an incredibly powerful tool to provide greater consistency in decision making, reduce land owners’ uncertainty when developing their land, and be a source of government transparency, even stimulating a renewed public engagement in land use decisions happening in their neighborhoods. 

This is the power of an institutional memory. Others sarcastically call it reverse smuggling.

Here's further description of what types of permits and information this database could be  integrated and how and why it is important.

[1] This is partly why it is so difficult to obtain a building permit in Honolulu -- City planners and examiners all interpret the code differently. And if you disagree, demanding a higher level review of the situation can be like calling in a special favor. At best it only causes a delay in permit processing time, or worse, if their interpretation also differs from your design professional, it can open a can of worms, exposing the project to risk in terms of costly changes and delays. An over-the-counter review can help decrease the amount of risk by trying to get upfront clarification of the requirements. However, it is this writer's experience that even the smallest projects fall into this gray space that is not covered in the back and white letter of the law. In such cases, then the project is left up to the mercy of the plan examiner/planner who is assigned to determine, rather than being handled in a fair or consistent manner.