Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance


“No administration or commission alone can build a community, it can only happen through respectful and responsible dialogue with neighborhood stakeholders. County employees time and taxpayers money is currently being spent on building obstacles for community organizations engaged in sustainable living research and providing valuable community services and the aim of HSCA is to change this paradigm.” Graham 2010

BREAKING NEWS: H.S.C.A. Public Meeting May 7th 2011 H.S.C.A. invites interested members of the community to attend our first public meeting. We will discuss our current progress with introducing legislation to amend the Hawaii County Code Chapter 5 (Building Code), to allow for more eco-friendly communities and buildings in Hawaii. We will also talk story about Big Island community challenges and solutions. We specifically support and encourage the State of Hawaii’s goal of self-reliance and sustainability. Working together, pooling resources and thereby consuming less is essential to our state becoming more self-reliant on all levels. Your input is valuable and we look forward to seeing you there. Aloha

Designed and built by Leimana Pelton

Along with our lawyers and huge amounts of energy from our S.P.A.C.E. team, I had worked tirelessly attempting to resolve legal issues at S.P.A.C.E. and, recognising that the special permit process itself was flawed in 2010 I decided to pursue another avenue and put all my energy into legalising sustainable living through the creation of the H.S.C.A.. Our campaign blossomed across the State of Hawai’i over the following three years reflecting powerful convictions held by many folks living sustainably that they were involved in righteous and essential work for the survival of mankind.

It seemed apparent to many of us in the sustainable living movement that it was time to give the State and County visions of sustainability a life beyond words by bringing land use codes into compliance with sustainable community developments. I manage to assemble a great team of activists, primarily James Weatherford, Bradley Westervelt, Amara Karuna, Mojo Mustapha and later Dena Smith Ellis and Michele Dennis with attendance on occasions from numerous other community leaders, local politicians and even the County Planning Department enforcement officer. Our mission united dozens of statewide groups who were serving their communities, but acting outside county ordinances. Many of them were intentionally keeping a very low profile living in fear of official retribution and this limited their level of commitment and community engagement.

We held powerful, highly motivated and productive board meetings bi- weekly, and within three years built a coalition of over 600 sustainable community advocates and 30 local organisations to lobby for legislative changes. Our H.S.C.A. recognized that community-owned, community-financed, community-run organizations offering facilities or services for their own communities promotes: the positive interaction between residents that creates social networks, stimulates communication, respects diversity, discovers common interests, develops trust, and promotes volunteerism. This righteous work building the social fabric of true community was often non-compliant with existing County codes.

We recognised there was a disconnect between grassroots community development and the skills and knowledge possessed by staff in the County Planning Department and the Department of Public Works. If we had all been able to paddle in the same direction in our ‘community canoe,’ our public servants could have provided an incredible boost to build more harmonious and healthy neighborhoods. Obviously, congenial, supportive working relationships between government and grassroots groups directly benefits all our communities.

A big problem was that even sympathetic and supportive members of the government bureaucracy had no boxes to put us in to rubber stamp our activities. Our group began researching online for models of legalized sustainable living that we could adopt but after dozens of hours we produced only a few prospects.

We found examples of groups circumventing laws through the grace of supportive local government officials, a few county councils that passed bills to allow a specific alternative development, New Mexico’s Sustainable Development Testing Sites Bill (which has apparently has only benefited Earthship’s), and some alternative building codes in Humboldt, Cochise, Nevada, Mendocino counties for single family residences. I researched worldwide and mostly what I found were communities like us struggling to find solutions to legalise truly sustainable lifestyles.

The methodology of Bellyacres and most contemporary ecovillages and alternative communities centers was to pioneer innovative and creative practices in sustainable living with a hope to serve as demonstration models for other organisations. This goal necessitated a change in laws because the best practices can only be replicated and expanded effectively if they are legal. It’s been tragically ironic that the policies and codes of conservative minded local governments challenge our way of life and disrupt our opportunity to share our sustainable practices and community resources. Our whole society benefits when government agencies are more flexible in their application of laws that were created for a different world or adopt new legislation to meet new needs.

Hawai’i-based communities, are not alone in this struggle. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of groups around the world struggling to live true to their values, even if it means not quite meeting their local building codes or zoning laws. Upon researching ecovillages that have overcome legal challenges, I found only a few examples. In each case, it was made possible by a few exceptional, understanding, and supportive key administrators in state legislatures, city halls, or county councils. They have creatively used terms like Ecovillage Zoning, Ecovillage Special Use Areas, Rural Residential Comprehensive Development Zones, or Sustainable Development Testing Sites, in order to legitimise individual projects. The models I found included Earthships; Tryon Life Community Farm, Portland; O.U.R. Ecovillage, Vancouver, BC; Ecovillage Ithaca, Ithaca, NY; Yarrow Ecovillage, British Columbia; Maitreya Ecovillage, Eugene, OR.

Discovering even a few successes for ‘legal’ sustainable living greatly encouraged our H.S.C.A. organization to work harder with our local government representatives to change our building and zoning code regulations. There is no way that a community can continue with the same regulations generation after generation. Times change, people’s values change, technology changes, and populations grow and shrink and while in 2010 climate change was still not a household accepted term we knew that the value of our sustainable living innovations to general society was rapidly increasing.

We read the State of Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan adopted in 2008 and the newly published County of Hawaii Sustainability Primer which stated, “From a sustainability perspective, the problem is that we are creating ongoing structural barriers that actually prevent people from being able to meet their own needs…Examples include discriminatory government policies…” After reading these and other pronouncements we naively trusted that our Hawai’i government would be receptive to actionable sustainability progress but we discovered this was not the case.

We evolved a plan to present a Sustainable Development Testing Site Bill, based upon the Earthships model, to the Hawai’i State legislature. Michael Reynolds, also known as the Garbage Warrior, had spent many years and three attempts in the New Mexico legislature to get his bill passed. He was adamant that new laws are essential to make it easier for people to choose sustainable living options and expressed many inspiring truths, based upon his own struggles, which included, “There’s a lot of people who cannot see beyond the rulebook and, beyond the rulebook, there is global warming. No significant evolution of design happens within rules, outside the codes is often where new information lies. We must be permitted the freedom to fail. We test bombs, automobiles, airplanes, why not test sustainable living systems? We are not asking for money, just permission to test. Our approach makes economic sense because research costs money and we are not trying to make money.”  Perhaps his most pertinent question was, “ What chance for life do our children and our children’s children have without more creative innovation?”

The first initiative of the H.S.C.A. was to craft a proposal for a new county code to remove the obstacles and challenges faced by small community groups in Hawai’i who could not use the special permit process to operate legally. We successfully petitioned our county council to unanimously pass The Sustainable Habitat Building Res # 167-11 instructing our Dept of Public Works “to establish an alternative Building code.” We submitted a draft bill for these new regulations and even got a county council member elected on the basis of his support for this reform; however, nothing ever happened. The administration blocked any changes in their usual fashion by claiming it was under review, apparently indefinitely. After two years, our advocate just gave up and quit his position.

In 2012, we succeeded in the passage of our second county resolution #302-12 which urged the Hawai’i State legislature to support a Sustainable Living Research Site bill and we successfully campaigned to get our local health food store owner elected as our state senator. Russell Ruderman—who plays Jerry Garcia-style lead guitar in our local Grateful Dead cover band—was a consistent champion of all sustainability efforts. In 2013, he introduced our sustainable living bill in the state legislature.

A version of our bill, HB 111, successfully passed through all four committees in the House and raised our hopes. Sadly, it was then preemptively killed by the chairwoman of the first Senate committee, who had a severe dislike for Grateful Dead- loving-senators and refused to give it a reading. However, submitted testimony showed a strong support statewide for sustainable living as a permitted activity in zoning and land use codes. It also taught us a great deal about who opposed our initiative, the legislative process, and the weaknesses in our bill.

We proposed the establishment of designated sites to facilitate unencumbered testing of autonomous and sustainable living systems including but not limited to energy, water, food, sewage, heating and cooling, bio-fuels and building with recycled and renewable materials. We explained that in the coming years these research sites would bring about the emergence of new methods of living and that currently no other venue exists to encourage this level of research.  Instead, by virtue of the existing paradigm sustainable development is often inhibited. Sustainable Living Research Sites would allow greater implementation of County and State sustainable living policies and provide a working template not only for the State of Hawaii but also for the U.S.

In late 2013, our H.S.C.A. volunteer group worked really hard and met frequently, crafting a heavily revised version of our bill. It was drafted following meetings and input from three past and present planning directors in an effort to address concerns raised by the Hawai’i and Maui County planning departments, who had opposed our original bill (HB 111).

In the 2014 legislative season, our bill (SB 2274), started well. It provided meaning to Governor Neil Abercrombie’s, 2014 State Address “Today’s climate changes are warning bells signalling the necessity for preparedness now … The Hawaiian Islands are a learning laboratory for scalable, innovative mitigation, adaptation policies and techniques, and providing a model on local and regional collaboration.” There were no opposing testimony from government agencies and only three comments listing ‘concerns.’ I wrote rebuttals to address their testimony and the bill continued proceeding well, until Puna politics attempted to derail us once again.

Another malicious campaign was waged by our social terrorist Puna residents, RJ and Sativa, under the guise of an organization, which they had created three weeks previously, called the “Puna Coastal Alliance” (PCA), with an unknown membership and no previous record of any accomplishments or meetings. They circulated emails claiming that SB 2274 would “permit construction, roads, geothermal, alternative power plants, parking lots, buildings, mills, and processing plants.” In actual fact, our bill showed—apparently surprisingly for some—that these activities were already existing permitted land uses under current Hawai’i statutes. The only modification that SB 2274 proposed to the current law was to add ‘sustainable living research sites’ as another permitted land use in rural and agricultural zoned areas.

In an effort to allay concerns, H.S.C.A. organized a public meeting to fully explain the bill, showing clearly it did NOT add any of the activities claimed by the Puna Coastal Alliance. We had extra support from the Puna Pono Alliance, our local anti-geothermal activists, who stated publicly that they “see no new geothermal law at all” in SB 2274. While the meeting we held was ostensibly about our bill, some of the participants came with a totally different agenda, using it as an excuse to attack me personally and—just like the ‘weapons of mass destruction debacle’—it was all based upon lies and myths.

Sadly it was a typical Puna meeting, with lots of fear, anger, drama, and finger pointing. I read out chunks of the bill and explained how it did not endanger anyone and did not permit more geothermal plants. However, none of this appeared to matter because the social terrorists attending had chosen to completely misinterpret the bill and simply didn’t want to understand it. The truth wasn’t the issue. This was not a rational discussion, this was a handful of irrational people waging their personal vendetta. We experienced a level of raw emotion that reality TV shows search for in vain. Imagine, a toothless bald woman, dressed like a man, in full fury—pacing the floor and using her pointer finger like it was a Star Wars light saber—screaming threats to everyone she objected to, for whatever reason.

LJ Bates, the new Kalani Honua Director who organised the meeting, was completely stunned from their opening salvo in the first minute. When the ‘raging fanatics’ finally ran out of steam after three hours and eventually left, he told Dena and I that in thirty years working in community, he’d never experienced such craziness at a meeting and he was overwhelmed by the behavior that he’d just witnessed. Even with the facts that we had calmly presented at the meeting, our adversaries still contacted local politicians and the press requesting opposition to bill SB 2274, based on the grounds that it was not about supporting sustainable living.

Dena, Mojo and I worked even harder and slowly managed to successfully move SB 2274 forward through more committees in the state legislature. It was reviewed by environmental lawyers, state legal staff, planning directors, numerous government agencies, plus senators and representatives on eight committees. It proposed adding ‘sustainable living research sites’ as permitted land use under the same process that our planning department had adopted for commercial aquaculture, wind generation, solar, biofuel, geothermal, and numerous other developments that are already permitted uses on agricultural and rural-zoned land.

In April 2014, thanks to the lengthy, tiring, and well-fought campaign waged by our H.S.C.A. board and membership, the bill passed—almost unanimously—through all of the required committees in the State House and the State Senate. At the last of the committee hearings, there were 94 support testimonies and two comment-only testimonies, with seven of the eight opposing testimonies coming from the ‘Puna Coastal Alliance.’ We were highly jubilant and excited at the prospect, not only of having the first legislation of its kind in the country, but mostly at the thought that it would enable all ecovillages and sustainable communities in Hawai’i a chance to become legal without compromise.

On the Big Island and on Maui, SB2274 would have allowed for the permitting of ecovillages, farms that accommodate interns studying sustainable agriculture, sustainable living educational retreats, the sharing of community resources, alternative building construction, non-commercial composting toilets, grey water systems, models of low carbon footprint lifestyles, and a host of other research activities. Bill SB2274 was one step away from the governor’s pen and had been scheduled for a joint conference committee of members of the Hawaii House and Senate to discuss which amendments (House and/or Senate) would be in the final version. We didn’t anticipate any problems at all since the amendments had been minimal.

However, we soon discovered that anything is possible in politics. I had some concerns because, at the eleventh hour, the final committee had received opposing testimony from our own county of Hawai’i planning director and the same senator that killed our bill in 2013 was chairwoman of the assigned conference committee. Despite all the support our bill received in the review process and our renewed lobbying efforts, she once again refused to give it a hearing, thereby killing it a second time. That event ended any faith I still had in the legislative system and the ability of grassroots movements to effectively change laws.

By the end of 2014, I had spent five years of my life on this project— sacrificing time and energy that could have been spent with my daughter, my step kids, my partner Dena, and other friends and family. I literally sweated over the research and had written reams of legal paperwork. I’d led a campaign that came very close to changing county building codes and state zoning laws, but crashed at the last hurdle.

Back at S.P.A.C.E. we continued attempting to become legal. My Special Permit presentation to the Hawai’i County Planning Commission ran through my mind day after day, night after night, and week after week. We were never given a hearing date (and still haven’t yet!) and so once again my voice for legalising sustainable living had been successfully stifled. Life as an eco-renegade can be tough at times but perhaps one day the H.S.C.A. will rise like a phoenix and fulfil it’s potential.

Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

2 thoughts on “Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance

  1. Wonderful Ideas, being a single it is so hard to to just survive & I am true supportive of this ideas!!!!


  2. I still proudly wear my bright green “Leagalize Sustainable Living’ tee shirt whenever it can make a statement…. We learned the inappropriate power imbalance in the legislature by giving the chairs of committees way too much authority. Many peoplewere involved and I personally want to thank Russell RUderman, one of my heros (along with Graham) for working tirelessly for this bill…. It went and was approved by ALL of the legislative committees in both the House and Senate, a remarkeable feat!


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