Geothermal relocations winding down

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HILO — Hawaii County is nearing the end of the waiting list for its geothermal relocation program more than four years after it saw a surge in applicants.

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HILO — Hawaii County is nearing the end of the waiting list for its geothermal relocation program more than four years after it saw a surge in applicants.

Joaquin Gamiao-Kunkel, deputy planning director, said offers are pending with the last two of the 39 applicants.

The county purchased 12 homes since 2012, with another 25 withdrawing their application or not responding to the county’s offer, according to the Planning Department, which oversees the program.

The program is funded by the county’s share of geothermal royalties and allows residents who live near Puna Geothermal Venture to sell their home to the county for up to 130 percent of its assessed value.

It was initially created to allow residents who purchased their home prior to Oct. 3, 1989 — before PGV’s completion — to be relocated.

But it has since been made available to anyone who lives within a mile of the plant and expresses a desire to relocate, including if they purchased their home after geothermal production started.

The program was seldom used, with five purchases recorded prior to 2012 when increased concerns over geothermal power production renewed interest.

So far, the county has spent $3.4 million on relocations, including $2.7 million in the last four years, according to data from the Planning Department.

The average purchase price is $200,998.

Purchased homes are later auctioned, usually resulting in a steep discount.

The county has auctioned 12, with an average sale price of $51,154. Proceeds are placed back into the relocation fund.

Gamiao-Kunkel said he expects the remaining homes to be auctioned by April. He said buyers and sellers are prohibited from using the relocation program more than once.

Buyers have included people intending to flip the home for a profit, while others have been families looking to become homeowners for the first time, Gamiao-Kunkel said. One person has purchased three of the homes.

It’s not clear if the program will see another spike in applications. But it likely will take some time before the fund can absorb the same number of purchases.

As of August, the relocation fund had $1.7 million remaining, including $1 million in reserve, Gamiao-Kunkel said.

In an attempt to stretch the fund, he said the county switched from offering 130 percent of assessed value to offering 100 percent of the 2014 assessment.

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In addition to relocations, the county also can use geothermal royalties for “community benefits” in Puna, Gamiao-Kunkel said.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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