Waimea neighbors protest STVR: Mixed messages from Planning Department contribute to neighbors’ angst

  • Waimea property subject of neighborhood dispute shown in a Nov. 9 letter to the Planning Department. (Andrew Odell/Special to West Hawaii Today)

Neighbors of a Waimea vacation rental vowed Friday to appeal Planning Director Michael Yee’s decision to allow the property to be grandfathered in under a county law prohibiting such properties in residential districts.

Yee on May 4 approved a nonconforming use certificate and vacation rental application for the property, at 65-1203 Awaa Place, the first application neighbors are aware of in this small, close-knit neighborhood.

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But several neighbors say they’re frustrated with the entire process. Not only did they not receive notice of the approval of the application in order to prepare for an appeal with the Board of Appeals within the 30-day legal timeframe, they’ve also received conflicting messages from the department, they said.

“That’s one of the challenges with the process — the lack of clarity and communication,” said Andrew Odell, an attorney who lives across the one-lane, dead-end road from the property.

The neighborhood dispute illustrates the increasing tension between the short-term rentals and their neighbors, as cases pile up at the Board of Appeals while the county slowly emerges from lockdowns. The rentals have been closed until at least June 30 as part of government emergency orders during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many neighbors remain on edge.

Odell said neighbors received notification of the application as required by law and submitted comments about the property, but when they called the department to follow up, they were met with silence.

“It’s a process that sets the neighboring homeowners up for failure if they have concerns about the project,” Odell said.

Odell’s Nov. 9 letter to the department listed several concerns, including his observations that the property wasn’t in use as a short-term vacation rental by the April 1, 2019, deadline to be grandfathered in. In addition, he said, the property doesn’t contain the required five parking spaces and the building was subdivided into two transient vacation rentals, rather than the one that was applied for.

Lena Oakes, an owner who applied for the vacation rental permit for the 1,899-square-foot structure, said she’s talked with neighbors and thought she’d addressed all their concerns. She said she hadn’t seen the letters submitted to the Planning Department.

“The complaints they gave me, I really tried to address,” Oakes said. “I tried to do everything that was required by law plus more.”

Odell and another neighbor who sent letters to the Planning Department, Richard Rocker, said Oakes had not contacted them.

“The house has always been a rental. I changed it from long-term to short-term,” Oakes said, “and I sent in a lot of proof.”

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.

Oakes said she believes a short-term vacation rental can be better for a neighborhood than a long-term rental, because a management company is more on top of the property as the tenants change. Long-term tenants often “don’t take care of the property,” she said.

Rocker, whose property backs up to the rental, disagrees, especially considering the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“Although I am not opposed to short-term vacation rentals in the resorts where their tenants stay and play, I am opposed to non-hosted ones in zoned single-family residential neighborhoods,” Rocker said. “I am curious why the law mandates informing neighbors within 300 feet if the Planning Department will not consider our complaints even when notarized under penalty of perjury.”

Rocker provided a May 23 email from Yee that said he hadn’t yet made a decision whether to approve the application and that Rocker would be notified when that happened.

Yee told West Hawaii Today on Thursday he made a mistake in the email, as he’s dealing with a stack of applications that are being processed since the September deadline. He said deadlines are still suspended while under the emergency proclamations so appellants would have more time.

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Otherwise, he said he can’t discuss individual cases as they’re still going through the process.

“I’ve made 4,000 determinations of vacation rentals. There’s going to be some people unhappy from applicants to community members,” Yee said. “That’s what the Board of Appeals is for.”

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