In light of a state investigation into alleged unauthorized use of 16 Ha‘ena homes as vacation rentals on state conservation lands, some residents yesterday asked the Kaua‘i County Council to upgrade an existing county law to improve regulation of the vacation rental business.
But the Council Planning Committee meeting at the historic County Building was punctuated by public comments that a generates heated response from councilman Ron Kouchi.
An audience member, who would not release her name to the media, said the state Department of Land and Natural Resources investigation could force property owners to sell homes they could not operate as vacation rentals and leave the homes unoccupied.
She also said using such homes for long-term rentals isn’t likely because the rent would be too high for most renters.
The properties will eventually become neglected and become an eyesore, she said, adding “it certainly can turn into a jungle.”
Kouchi, stifling anger, said her characterization of the problem facing the Ha‘ena property would not draw any sympathy from him. “If you look at me, you aren’t going to get any mercy from me,” he said.
Kouchi served as council chairman and councilman for some 20 years before he stepped down in 2002 to run unsuccessfully for mayor.
During those years, he said the lack of action by the state on abuses on state conservation land left him frustrated. In some cases, the state attempted to correct problems by revising rules or practices, but failed to do so, he said. Lack of manpower cited by the DLNR also was a cause for not fixing problems, Kouchi said.
In the latest enforcement effort by the state agency — the DLNR issued notices in late March to the Ha‘ena property owners to halt the alleged unauthorized use of their homes as vacation rentals — the property owners knew from the start that their approved Conservation District Use Application disallowed rental uses, Kouchi said.
Instead of following the law, they deliberately violated it, Kouchi said.
Those property owners knew their only option was to live in the homes, but chose to rent, he said.
Kouchi stood by his views, but apologized later in the meeting for being curt with the audience member.
“I got a little excited and am ashamed of not being more professional in treating you with more respect,” he said. “(But) this has been boiling (my) blood.”
The woman, involved in a Kaua‘i real estate business, said Kouchi misunderstood her and that she was using the Ha‘ena vacation rental issue as an example of what could happen to vacation rentals across the island.
She said she also supports low-level uses on state conservation lands.
The state probe focuses on abuses on state conservation land, but may have far-reaching effects on vacation rental owners on other types of zoned lands, Kilauea resident James Bray said.
The DLNR’s cease-and-desist order for owners to discontinue the use of the Ha‘ena homes as vacation rentals by June 30 or possibly face fines of up to $2,000 a day has forced some owners not to take reservations now, Bray said.
“The cease-and-desist orders served to (the) conservation property operators have caused fear that legal operators will be next,” he said. “In Wailua, three local families have stopped taking reservations for fear they will be next.”
Councilman Tim Bynum said he is “concerned about people being fearful,” but that the state investigation focuses on alleged abuses on state conservation lands.
Speaking for Ray Chuan, a Hanalei resident and government watchdog, Wailua resident Glenn Mickens said Chuan was ecstatic over the DLNR investigation.
“It is absolutely refreshing, living on Kaua‘i, to find that some parts of our state government actually perform their duty as required by law,” Mickens read from testimony submitted by Chuan, who was not able to attend the meeting.
Many of the vacation rental cases also “involve Realtors who manage and promote illegal vacation rentals,” Chuan said.
Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said the alleged state violations are not directly related to a council bill to better regulate the vacation rental industry.
For one thing, the county has no jurisdiction in the matter, she said. “I have no knowledge of what happened,” she said. “We are really unaware.”
The bill would essentially restrict vacation rentals to county-designated visitor destination areas at Princeville, in Waipouli, Lihu‘e, Koloa and Po‘ipu and at Kapalawai in west Kaua‘i.
The bill also proposes to grandfather legally operated vacation rentals — those, for example, that have paid state taxes.
Hanalei resident Carl Imparato implored the council to pass a law that would “grandfather” existing vacation rentals that “have been operating in full compliance with all land use laws, in particular, the CZO (comprehensive zoning ordinance ) and the SMA (county Special Management Area) rules.”
Fewer vacation rentals will not, in his opinion, hurt the island’s workforce or economy, Imparato said.
Whatever units that could be lost through stringent laws can be made up through the building of new time-share units and hotels in Waipouli and Wailua only, he said.
Even if 545 vacation rentals were shut down or phased out, any economic shortcomings from that could be absorbed by 1,660 units projected to be built over the next five years, based on the Kaua‘i Tourism Strategic Plan, 2006-2115, which was circulated last year, Imparato said.
One amendment proposed by Yukimura would prohibit vacation rentals on agricultural land, in line with a government farming land use agreement.