County to file enforcement action against owners of homeless encampment

  • A fenced off and tarped area behind Agasa Furniture and Music Store at the corner of Punahoa Street and Nawahi Lane is the cause of concern for business owners in downtown Hilo. (Hollyn Johnson/Tribune-Herald)

  • Irene Agasa of Agasa Furniture and Music Store is concerned about a fenced off and tapped area behind the store at the corner of Punahoa Street and Nawahi Lane in downtown Hilo. (Hollyn Johnson/Tribune-Herald)

HILO — Hawaii County is preparing to issue an enforcement action against the owners of a downtown Hilo parking lot that has become a homeless encampment.

A small lot of land located between Ponahawai and Mamo streets has, during the past several months, gone from a vacant parking lot to a fenced-off collection of tents and makeshift structures.

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“It started about four or five months ago,” said Irene Agasa, co-owner of the adjacent Agasa Furniture. “It started small, with just a couple of people moving in.”

Cut to weeks later, when fences around the edge of the parking lot were erected with signs placed prohibiting entry to anyone without an invitation.

The lot is presently owned by NSHE HI Foxglove LLC, a company evidently owned by Big Island residents Jeri Rose and Michael Ravenswing, neither of whom responded to multiple requests for comment. Agasa said she spoke to Rose about the actions on her property, but Foxglove has apparently not taken any action to prohibit it.

“The owners said they were going to build a structure of some kind there,” Agasa said, adding that some preliminary construction might have started last year but was aborted shortly thereafter.

A permit was issued by the county Department of Public Works to construct a two-story medical office building on the site in 2014, but that was four years before the lot’s most recent sale.

Agasa said the presence of the encampment is troublesome for her business, as many people incorrectly think the lot is her property. The increased foot, bicycle and skateboarding traffic heading into and out of the encampment makes negotiating the nearby narrow Punahoa Street a potentially dangerous proposition, while loitering camp residents can deter customers from the storefront or block its loading zones.

Furthermore, Agasa said she is concerned about potential illegal activity and health risks within the encampment.

“I hear keiki crying inside there sometimes,” she said. “I’m just worried about the health of those kids.”

“What are you supposed to do if the landowners allow it?” Agasa asked.

Gregg Silva, safety coordinator for the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association, said the encampment and its proximity to Hilo Farmers Market is bad for downtown businesses, although he said the DIA has not received any specific complaints about the camp directly.

Because the parking lot is private property, police cannot evict homeless people from it because there is no way to prove the homeless people are not there with the owners’ permission. And because of the owners’ apparent refusal to respond to inquiries regarding their property, confirming the squatters’ rights to be there is impossible.

Andrew Son, deputy corporation counsel, said the county is preparing to bring an enforcement action against Rose and Ravenswing based on violations with the county Planning and Public Works departments, although he was unwilling to provide specifics about what that action might entail. However, he said the special management area wherein the property lies requires structures — such as the fencing and tents of the encampment — to be approved by relevant county departments.

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Son did not say when the enforcement action would be filed.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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