County to resume abandoned vehicle pickups on private roads

  • Abandoned cars are parked off Mamalahoa Highway in Holualoa. (Photo courtesy / Greg Colden)

  • An abandoned vehicle is towed down Hina Lani Street in Kailua-Kona. (CHELSEA JENSEN/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Relief is on the way for Big Island residents irked by the accumulation of abandoned vehicles along rural roadways.

Measures moving at the county and state level will allow the county to resume removing abandoned vehicles from private roadways, such as those in Puna and Hawaiian Ocean View Estates. The county stopped providing that service March 1, after realizing it had no legal authority to do so.

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The state measure, HB 2447, passed by the Legislature earlier this year and now on the governor’s desk, gives the county more wiggle room in how it handles abandoned vehicles, while requiring that counties take abandoned vehicles into custody within 10 business days.

The county measure, Bill 154, specifically authorizes the Department of Environmental Management to remove abandoned vehicles from private roads. It was approved unanimously and now goes to the Environmental Management Commission before heading back to the council.

In the meantime, the county is offering an amnesty deal: The county will pay the $680 disposal cost if the owner tows the vehicle to the scrapyard.

The county has many communities with private roads because they’re not up to code and the county doesn’t want to take over them, said Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski.

“We didn’t have the authority to tow from those,” Kucharski said. “We were extending our authority beyond what the law gives us.”

Once the administration realized its error, it stopped towing the vehicles, resulting in a hue and cry from communities. Several HOVE residents provided testimony to the council.

“This is wrong. Our roads are privately funded but they are open to the public and the police,” said Linda Schutt. “We pay the fee when registering our vehicles that goes into the vehicle disposal fund. … The abandoned vehicles are piling up and this is not acceptable.”

“Vehicles get dumped illegally on our roads and are often left there for weeks or sometimes months at a time,” said Heidi Jaworski in written testimony. “People steal parts from the vehicles, including the tires and wheels, they vandalize them by breaking out the windows and they usually light them on fire. The longer the vehicles are left on the roadway, the worse public health and safety situation we end up with.”

Rep. Richard Creagan, a Democrat who represents Ka‘u, also asked for council support.

“The abandoned vehicles are an unattractive nuisance and a public health and safety issue,” Creagan said.

Council members agreed.

“These roads are publicly traveled,” said Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles. “If they’re ever blocked by abandoned vehicles, they could be a public safety hazard.”

Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara, who previously worked in Environmental Management, said the county had picked up the vehicles along private roadways for 15 years.

“This is a very much needed bill,” she said. “We really need to move forward with this and get it on its path.”

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha asked if the county has the capacity to handle even more abandoned vehicles. He questioned whether the vehicles are being removed as promptly as claimed.

“Sometimes it’s a lot longer than that,” Kanuha said.

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Kucharski said his department doesn’t get involved until the Police Department has certified the vehicle is indeed abandoned and not stolen. That can lead to a delay, as police priorities dictate when they can get to the vehicle, Kucharski said.

“We still have an obligation to try to find the owner,” he said, “to ensure in fact the vehicle is abandoned and not stolen.”