Vacation rental applications trickling in

  • The first vacation rental application was received from owners of a home in Keauhou Estates. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Vacation rental registrations are coming in faster than workers at the county Planning Department can process them.

As of early this week, 226 registrations had been processed, with 100 of them also requiring a nonconforming use permit because they’re not in permitted areas. In addition, paper application forms were stacked in several boxes awaiting processing.

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Still, that’s just a fraction of the 7,990 active advertised rentals on the Big Island as of this week. Of those, 45% are on Airbnb, 28% on HomeAway/VRBO and 87% are entire homes, according to AirDNA statistics analyzed by Stefan Buchta, who’s compiled data on the short-term rentals.

Some of that total, although not many, are hosted rentals, where the owner lives on premises, Buchta said. Hosted rentals aren’t covered by the new law.

County officials expected a slow start to the applications and the incoming forms are tracking with the county’s conservative estimates, said Douglas Le, administrative services officer in the Planning Department.

“It was really hard to roll the dice and make assumptions,” Le said. “It’s been a steady trickle. We do encourage the public to reach out and ask questions. We are here to help, so folks won’t feel they are up against the wall at the end of the filing period.”

Information and application forms can be found at http://www.hiplanningdept.com/short-term-vacation-rentals.

The county started collecting registration applications in mid-April, after enacting a law requiring registration of all such nonhosted short-term rentals. In addition, existing rentals not in either resort or commercially zoned areas must get a nonconforming use certificate to be grandfathered in.

Eight times as many applications are coming in at the Planning Department’s Kona office than the Hilo one, said Bennett Mark, program manager in West Hawaii.

“We are accepting a lot of applications,” Mark said. “It stands to reason. Most of the sunny weather, most of the rentals are on this side.”

On the west side, the vast majority of vacation rentals are in permitted areas, he said.

The owner of a 4,059-square-foot, $1.7 million Keauhou home was the first in the county to apply for the nonconforming use permit, according to county records. Robert Harrison Michels, who lists a Great Barrington, Massachusetts, address, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Vacation rentals are defined as dwelling units where the owner or operator does not reside on the building site, that has no more than five bedrooms for rent and is rented for a period of 30 consecutive days or less.

All vacation rental owners in existence as of April 1 are required to register their property by Sept. 28 and pay a $500 fee, showing that transient accommodations taxes, general excise taxes and property taxes are paid in full. Short-term vacation rentals may be established only within a dwelling that has been issued final approvals by the Building Division for building, electrical and plumbing permits.

The nonconforming use certificate for those preexisting in disallowed areas must be renewed annually, at a cost of $250.

The county expects to collect about $845,000 from vacation rental registration fees and fines during the fiscal year that starts July 1. That money will be used to hire two land use plans checkers, two planning inspectors and three planners, as well as purchase software.

The help can’t come too soon for Mark, who said his office has benefited from some temporary hires.

“Many people are calling us or appearing at our counter with very complex questions about their rentals. … Sometimes simple questions end up with a very complex answer,” Mark said.

Le acknowledges the challenge.

“The majority that have come in have come in to the Kona office,” Le said. “Our staff have been able to work in overdrive to maintain the vacation rental work as well as their other work with short-term contract employees to help bridge the gap.”

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The county has sent out a request for proposals for a computerized short-term rental enforcement system with a June 7 deadline for responses. The county will evaluate the proposals and select a vendor from the proposals received, said county procurement specialist Steve Wilhelm. He said all information about the RFP, including how many responded to the solicitation, remains confidential until a contract is finalized.

The vendor will be charged with maintaining a list of short-term rentals with parcel numbers and owners’ information and monitoring marketing content for compliance with county rules, according to the RFP.

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