County sues Puakea Ranch

  • One of four vacation rental buildings at Puakea Ranch near Hawi. (Facebook photo)

HILO — The county is suing a Hawi vacation rental ranch following more than two years of neighbor complaints over weddings, concerts and events being held there without a permit.

Lot #1 of Puakea Ranch near Hawi, owned by a Beverly Hills group, includes four plantation-era buildings on 32.4 acres in the state land use agricultural district and in county agricultural zoning. The ranch buildings are advertised on sites such as Airbnb and booking.com for at prices ranging from $289 to $629 nightly.

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Since early 2016, the county has been sending warning letters and notices of violations that recreational activities associated with a “guest ranch” are not allowed in the agriculture district without a special permit. Fines have been accruing at the rate of $500 a day.

The county filed suit in 3rd Circuit Court on Nov. 30, seeking more than $197,500 in back fines, attorneys’ fees and costs, an injunction to prohibit unauthorized activities and the demolition of an open recreational pavilion that was apparently built without a county permit.

“The county also seeks an order for entry onto the premises by county agents, contractors and officers to effect clean-up, deconstruction or demolition of offending use and abatement and recovery of all costs incurred in such efforts,” the lawsuit states.

The lodging activities are considered grandfathered in on the property because they precede zoning laws, but recreational uses are not allowed unless the property has a use permit for a guest ranch. Guest ranches, like bed-and-breakfast operations, are not covered under a new vacation rental ordinance that goes into effect April 1.

But activities leading to neighbor complaints have apparently not abated.

“As a neighboring homeowner and Hawaii resident, these illegal activities continually affect our way of life and our community,” said neighbor Robert Morrison in a Nov. 15 letter to the county. “Neither the accrual of fines nor Cease and Desist Orders deter the continued operation of the unpermitted commercial activities.”

Christine Cash, one of the owners, told West Hawaii Today on Wednesday that her ranch is in full compliance, and she is working on a special use permit to be able to continue hosting weddings and special events on the property.

“The vacation rental is completely legal,” Cash said of the business she’s been running for the past 12 years.

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She added that she’s paid all her transient accommodations taxes. She also paid $1,500 in fines in 2017.

Clarification: This article has been edited to specify that only Lot #1 in the 9-lot, 240-acre subdivision is being sued.