Vacation rental bill postponed again

  • A cyclist rides past a vacation rental on Alii Drive in this undated photo. (Laura Rumisnki/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — After hearing pleas from short-term vacation rental operators in Puna and elsewhere asking the county put a vacation rental bill aside until Puna and the county recover from its ongoing lava emergency, the County Council Planning Committee postponed action Monday until July 10.

Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara tried to sweeten the deal by adding language that would allow the planning director to accept applications for new short-term vacation rentals to replace those lost during an emergency. She estimated as many as 400 vacation rentals, almost half of the inventory in her district, were destroyed by lava flows.

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“Visitors are going to want to come to my district,” O’Hara said. “They’d like to view the volcano; they’d like to see the results of the volcano.”

O’Hara’s extensive amendments were postponed along with the bill.

Other officials were unsure about allowing vacation rentals to be rebuilt when the point of the bill is to move them out of inappropriate zones.

Deputy Planning Director Daryn Arai agreed. He said county agencies do have latitude during declared emergencies.

“While I totally understand that it would have significant effect on inventory … it does run counter to the original purpose of the bill,” he said.

Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy saw the same problem.

“That seems to go contrary to the original intent of this bill, to get the vacation rentals into the zoning areas that support it … and out of our neighborhoods,” she said.

North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff, a bill co-sponsor, said the council, after numerous meetings, has taken a moderate approach.

“It’s still going to be difficult to please all the competing interests,” Eoff said.

Bill 108 applies only to unhosted, short-term or vacation rentals where the owner does not live on site. Hosted rentals, such as bed and breakfasts and home-sharing units, are not addressed in the bill.

The measure is an attempt to prohibit unhosted short-term rentals in residential and agricultural zones, while allowing them in hotel and resort zones as well as commercial districts. Existing rentals in disallowed areas would be able to be grandfathered in by applying for a nonconforming use certificate that must be renewed annually at a cost of $500.

The bill tries to strike a balance between residents facing an inundation of vacationers in their once-quiet neighborhoods, and those trying to supplement their income, or make an income, by renting homes to vacationers.

“(Vacation rentals) are deeply impacting your life and the characteristics of the neighborhood,” Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said to testifiers. “We can’t make ends meet at the expense of everyone else in the community.”

But others saw the bill as being ill-advised during the current emergency that already is causing losses in the tourism economy.

“Tourism and the vacation rental business have been hit hard by the volcano eruption,” said Debbie Sharp, a property manager at Kohala Ranch, where, combined with Kohala Estates, have almost 50 such rentals in an agricultural zone. “It will devastate the economy right now. … We really don’t need another obstacle to the tourism business right now when we are fighting for our livelihood.”

Several Puna residents testified in agreement.

“Now is an inappropriate foolhardy time to consider this legislation, as scores of Puna residents — including quite a few vacation rental owners that would be subject to the bill — are displaced due to the ongoing lower Puna eruption,” said Volcano resident Matt Hubner. “Not only is the county losing property income from the lost housing in lower Puna, but from my personal experience renting my house as a vacation rental, tourists are fearful to come and visit the island as a whole. Businesses are suffering.”

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“I urge you not to hamstring lower Puna’s economy, in our great time of need, by making it impossible for visitors to stay here,” said Paul Crawford, of Pahoa.

“If you have any interest in helping rebuild Puna and our community, modify to allow rentals on ag land, if only for a time, so we can get back on our feet after the eruption subsides,” said Joe Sowker, of Pahoa. “We have been through a lot here, and the threat continues, but with your assistance there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.”