Kauai County Council — Felicia Cowden
Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Felicia Cowden, candidate for Kauai County Council. The other candidates for seven positions are Addison Bulosan, Bernard Carvalho, Billy DeCosta, Luke Evslin, Fern Holland, Rosemarie Jauch, Ross Kagawa, KipuKai Kuali’i, James Langtad, Jeffrey Lindner, Lila Metzger, Nelson Mukai, Jakki Nelson, Mel Rapozo, Roy Saito, Rachel Secretario, Shirley Simbre-Medeiros and Clint Yago.
“The importance of retaining our generational population with heritage skills and environmental knowledge cannot be overstated.”
1. What is the biggest issue facing Kauai County, and what would you do about it?
The biggest issue facing Kauai County is too many of our long-standing residents are being pushed off the island through high housing costs and low wages. The importance of retaining our generational population with heritage skills and environmental knowledge cannot be overstated. This problem is the result of decades of not prioritizing workforce housing now being amplified by migrations of people from cities to rural areas across the country with the increased ability to work remotely.
On Kauai, much of our infrastructure, particularly our landfill, cannot accommodate the level of luxury development underway. Recently, the state and county have both relaxed regulations and barriers to building housing intended for our workforce and at-risk populations in this past legislative season. Effective solutions require continued partnership between all layers of government and the private sector. As your full-time council person, I am committed to solving these important issues by collaborating with the needed partnerships to keep our people on Kauai.
2. In the last four years, Kauai’s north shore has endured two major weather events that have severed entire communities from jobs, schools, pharmacies, banks, doctors and other essential services for many months. Should this change the county’s approach to disaster preparedness, and if so, how?
Kauai’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan is the disaster preparedness change currently underway. This long-range planning process assists addressing these difficult questions regarding managing disaster preparedness and potential support funding sources with the public and communities. As council Public Safety Committee chair, I will continue assisting Kauai Emergency Management Agency, the state highways and neighborhood associations with strengthening more proactive planning, which defines each community’s unique priorities relative to their vulnerabilities.
The state Department of Transportation holds the lead on the road design. In the 1990s, the north shore made the reluctant choice to risk a Kuhio Highway collapse over accepting the proposed highway improvement to federal standards in order to retain the rural characteristics from Hanalei to Haena. We are now living with the outcome that was warned as inevitable.
Our climate-vulnerable areas must participate in these plans. FEMA will not continuously fund the repairs of repeated similar events of regional isolations.
3. There are nearly 14,000 cesspools on Kauai that must be removed by 2050. With an average cost of $15,000 to $30,000 to convert to septic, many homeowners say making the transition is not affordable. How can the county help to jump-start cesspool replacements?
The sewage contamination leaking into our groundwater, streams and onto our reefs is critically important to address ahead of the state’s 2050 deadline. The funding challenge is the biggest obstacle. Thinking beyond traditional septic systems is a needed direction.
Strengthening Kauai’s existing partnerships with our Community Development Financial Institution to provide economic support where needed, as well as strategizing with neighborhood associations, wastewater businesses and nonprofits for developing localized neighborhood collaborative systems using new emerging technology. I support county and state administrative efforts to apply for environment grants to channel needed financial assistance to homeowners into our county’s newly created cesspool conversion program.
The State of Hawaii could extend and improve its Act 120 income tax credit to incentivize cesspool replacement to septic/wastewater systems or connecting to a sewer, as well.
4. Traffic is getting worse on the island of Kauai, and different regions face different challenges. What would be your approach to improve Kauai’s transportation problems?
My approach is to continue following our actions underway. The state is adding a permanent fourth lane from Wailua to Hanamaulu. Additional traffic circles and synchronized traffic lights are more planned improvements, along with various needed left-hand stacking lanes.
The county is continuing to utilize our additional GET revenue for federal road improvement grants. Puhi Road will soon be under improvement, and Poipu Road is likely. I support adaptation and improvement of former cane haul roads. They are a waiting asset to consider in our longer range planning.
One fresh starting point is to not add traffic by allowing expansion of the number of gates and flight capacity in the Lihue Airport Master Plan.
Our planning policy is shifting to encourage mixed use residential and commercial town core designs within walkable and bike-able distances to facilitate town hubs where people live, work, play and go to school. Expanding our bus routes and times with proximity to high-traffic areas and adding cargo space on our Kauai buses would be a valuable encouragement to both visitors and residents to use public transportation with direct service to the resort areas with regional car rental hubs.
5. Do you feel the governor and Legislature appreciate the issues of your county, or are they too focused on Honolulu and Oahu?
Kauai is lucky to have a strong legislative team who do well for our islands of Niihau and Kauai, both with funding and policy. Our four legislative members hold important leadership positions. The governor’s administration and Legislature have shown appreciation for our islands. Kauai receives more than our proportionate share of revenue from the state as the smallest county.
Each county is quite unique. We have been well served in our times of environmental crises, such as the 2018 flood. I value the needed successful efforts such as the $1 billion funding for housing, including $600 million for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Areas that can be strengthened are honoring the commitments to Hawaiian heritage, resource and land obligations, as well as more direct capacity for water resource management. More localized control over agricultural lands and policies would be beneficial.
6. For more than a year the median price for a single-family home on Kauai has topped $1 million. What would you do to help address the deficit of low-income, affordable and middle-class housing?
I will continue to support the budgeting for our Kauai Housing Department’s rapid building efforts and work to pass ordinances that support the state-level removal of barriers to building transitional and affordable housing for our people on the county lists of existing Kauai residents. Moving our unsheltered people into safety continues to be a passionate priority for me.
The $600 million for Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is long overdue and deserves rapid implementation.
I am supporting our County Council’s proposed ballot amendment to create a 2% real property tax revenue diversion to our Housing Revolving Fund to seed building county housing projects.
It is important to recognize affordable housing has become a complex national challenge. Inflation is driving all the rising costs of living with housing prices further elevated due to migrations from urban areas. Rural residents almost cannot compete with new arriving wealth. Real estate is being utilized as financial investment instruments with the weakening of the stock market, cryptocurrencies, etc. Increasing conveyance taxes would be useful to discourage the speculative investments on the housing market. Effectively addressing this crisis requires a collaborative approach, with the layers of government and the private sector large employers sharing the burden of housing.
7. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic winds down, local businesses are struggling to hire and retain workers, which has led to shortages of everything from grocery store cashiers and restaurant workers to teachers and school bus drivers. What, if anything, would you do to address this economic instability?
As a council member, prioritizing housing availability is the strongest step toward rebuilding a workforce. For decades our young adult population often have left for opportunities in the other states, many never returning in their working years. We need to bring them home or keep them here.
Continued training for new employment pathways, remote education programs, creation of studio rental units, increased public transportation options and facilitating lowered costs of living are necessary to retain our active or young workforce. Kauai Community College can be a valuable partner.
I will also continue to directly support policies that inspire and retain our own county employees.
8. Kauai’s landfill in Kekaha will soon run out of capacity and there’s still no timely plan in place to build a new one. What can the county council do to address what could become a garbage crisis for the island?
The lack of capacity at Kauai’s landfill is an urgent need. Siting a new landfill is at a crisis level and needs our full focus. Evolving environmental regulations have eliminated any new location to be an appropriate site for our next landfill. Somehow, somewhere one or some of these regulations is going to have to relax. Private partnerships may be required for recycling or small-scale new waste technologies. Our state and federal partners need to recognize that the Hawaiian islands have unique characteristics different than a continent.
Construction and demolition is a large contributor to our landfill. We need policies that limit large developments until there is a solution planned for our landfill. More people equals more solid waste. I have been regularly and actively raising this issue with the county administration. This problem reveals the policy conflicts between our infrastructure needs and allowing zoning approvals to lie dormant for decades.
We need sundown dates or re-evaluation dates on projects because infrastructure, population density and cultural heritage conditions evolve between the time of a project’s approval and a future development often occurring years later.
9. Overtourism can degrade the environment, threaten biodiversity, contribute to wear and tear on infrastructure, generate traffic and disrupt neighborhoods. What more can be done to better manage the island’s tourism sector?
Overtourism is degrading our environment at almost all levels. We need to set limits. The visitor designated areas have been overwhelmed with transient vacation rentals and the true area residents are being driven out or forced to cope with anger and concern. Neighborhoods are becoming motels. We need to explore caps on TVR numbers.
Not expanding the airport arrival capacity is one opportunity we have in the present. As stated in earlier questions, improving our Kauai bus and visitor shuttle systems to encourage workers and visitors to ride group transportation to resorts will lessen the traffic impacts. Having large builders share in the landfill, housing and infrastructure burdens will appropriately discourage unneeded development; most of which has the workers flown in to do the construction and operations.
As policymakers, we are regularly told why we cannot place limits. I will work to change our mindset to assertively determine how we can create the limits that are needed to protect the environment and the quality of life for Kauai and our people.
10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Kauai County. Be innovative, but be specific.
Weaving the opportunities and changes that have occurred due to our two years of pandemic policies can adapt the social and economic shifts into positive changes for Kauai. People’s ability for remote work has emerged as a strong new economic driver with little environmental impact or strain on our physical infrastructure, while providing greater freedom and flexibility for our people.
Educating our existing population to more easily participate in the world economy, as remote workers, is one way of keeping our young people on-island with more robust income sources than previously possible. Continuing the hybrid of virtual and physical attendance in meetings, work and business leads to an increased efficiency, more time and less traffic. We are already seeing a payroll trend for our essential workers well above minimum wage that needs to continue. As well, talented people are arriving on our island wanting to belong and enrich our community. Let’s help them be a blessing rather than an overwhelming force.
Leadership can help to create pathways that embrace our newly arriving population into our beloved island culture and strengthen Kauai’s resilience. I am eager to help facilitate the many layers of this process.