Small businesses cautiously optimistic amid city’s move to electronic permitting system

Starting July 1st, the city's Department of Planning and Permitting will require all business permit applications to be submitted electronically.
Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 5:14 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 9, 2023 at 7:42 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The city’s Department of Planning and Permitting will require all business permit applications to be submitted electronically starting July 1.

The DPP hopes removing the paper in “paperwork” will streamline the process.

But some construction professionals say they’re seeing more delays with the new ePlans system because they can’t update project plans until all agencies weigh in on the platform.

For small business owners in Honolulu, waiting one to two years for a permit comes at a high cost.

“Once you sign the lease, you have to pay rent. And if you’re paying about $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 rent, it’s very simple. It costs me additional $100,000 to $200,000 extra for that delay,” said L&L Hawaiian Barbecue founder and owner Eddie Flores, who added that it used to take three months for a permit.

While some landlords will give extensions, the uncertainty is bad for business.

Aside from rent, borrowing money is more expensive, and investors aren’t willing to wait.

“I cannot guarantee the time. If I cannot guarantee the time, how can I guarantee the investment?” said Jack Zhang, owner of local chain Hawaii Pot Shabushabu House with six Oahu locations.

He is applying for a permit to open another one.

Even established businesses are having trouble getting permits to renovate.

“A year to get it through, it’s ludicrous,” said McDonald’s franchisee Victor Lim. He hires a third party reviewer to expedite his permit applications, saying it would take longer without one.

“If you can eliminate some of the checks that you have to do with every single department for an existing business, then I think we could make the process faster,” he said.

The men say some are choosing to build without permits and face fines from the City, rather than lose money — noting that was the case with Chick-fil-A in Ala Moana Center. “They’re fortunate to be able to do that. Can you imagine a smaller business coming in to do it? It’s a big expense,” Lim said.

DPP says issues are sometimes out of its control, such as unclear plans or documents waiting to be physically routed between agencies by the applicant.

DPP Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna said it efforts to streamline the system will take time.

“The major ongoing improvements include hiring sufficient number of staff to conduct reviews, upgrading our permitting software that is two decades old, and improving internal processes for greater efficiencies. The new software will have greater automation and allow property owners and applicants to see exactly where in the process their application is and what needs to be addressed to move it forward.”

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi added the “road ahead is very promising.”

While some are skeptical of the city’s ePlans system, small business owners say anything is better than the status quo. “It’s costing everybody, the whole economy,” Lim said.