WAILUA HOMESTEADS — Lori Abbey-MacDonald and her family got along with her neighbor for most of the 33 years she has lived in her home.
That changed in 2004 when Abbey-MacDonald said she collapsed in her yard and was rushed to the hospital shortly after asking her neighbor to put out their wood-burning fireplace, which she and her doctors say has made her family’s asthma symptoms worse.
In the years since then, the fireplace in her neighbor’s living room has inflamed tensions between the two families.
“They don’t talk to me anymore because I’ve had the police come several times, so we’re definitely not friends,” Abbey-MacDonald said on Thursday at her Wailua Homesteads home. “If I’m not angry, I’ll wave. I was really angry at first but now I’m just trying to do something about it.”
On days when her neighbors burn wood in their fireplace, Abbey-MacDonald said she and her husband must shut their windows tightly, turn on the two air purifiers in their home, turn all their fans on, and avoid going outside.
“You have to otherwise you definitely can’t breathe,” Abbey-MacDonald said. “There’s still smoke in the house, but it’s not as bad as when you don’t do it.”
Abbey-MacDonald said she and other family members are hoping to find some relief through a new Kauai County Council proposal that would declare air pollution that endangers public health or causes property damage a public nuisance.
“This has been an issue for years and is long overdue addressing,” said Councilman Gary Hooser, who authored the proposal outlined in Bill 2573. “Many other communities around the nation, not just Maui, have similar issues. It is unfortunate we have to deal with these types of situations, but it is essentially a public health issue.”
The bill would make it illegal and a public nuisance for “any person, firm, or corporation in the County of Kauai to intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly cause” smoke, soot, poisonous gases, dirt, dust or debris of any kind to escape into the open air that can injure a person’s health or damage property.
Penalties for violating the proposed law include a maximum $1,000 fine, a maximum 30-day jail term, or both.
“If people believe and can prove their health is being harmed by the burning, they would report it to the police and the prosecutor’s office,” Hooser wrote in an email.
Some residents and officials, however, say the law may cause more harm than good.
Abbey-MacDonald’s neighbor who owns a wood-burning fireplace, Stanley Gonsalves, worries the new proposal will put an additional burden on his family.
The 72-year-old veteran said he and his wife have received close to 80 complaints over the years and have, as a result, had officials from the Kauai Police Department, Kauai Fire Department, Kauai County Council, County Planning Department, and state Department of Health visit and call his home on multiple occasions.
Many of those claims, however, were determined to be unfounded, said Gonsalves, adding he burns wood to keep warm and alleviate knee ailments that affect him and his wife.
“The cold weather affects me, and it affects my wife, too, now that she has these knee problems, so in the morning, the first thing I do is light the fireplace because it’s so cold during the winter season,” Gonsalves said. “It’s a great feeling to feel warm, especially when you’re in pain.”
Gonsalves said he and his 70-year-old wife once worked with neighbors to resolve the issue but now feel disinclined to do so after heated words were exchanged.
“What else can I say,” Gonsalves said. “In this world, there are some people you can please and some you can’t.”
Though the county does not keep track of how many fireplaces there are on Kauai, a building permit is required to build a masonry fireplace.
County spokeswoman Beth Tokioka said officials from the Kauai Police Department and the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney “have concerns about this bill and will be sharing those concerns with the council as they take action on the measure.”
“We do not believe that KPD, nor any county personnel, has the expertise to link air quality to the poor health of individuals,” Tokioka wrote in an email. “In order to establish probable cause for prosecution, consultants and experts would need to be engaged, which we believe would be cost-prohibitive – especially in light of the county’s current fiscal situation.”
Since fireplaces and smoke houses “are legal and permissible structures and activities,” Tokioka said county departments involved in regulating them “may have difficulty enforcing this ordinance because of the ordinance’s subjectivity and/or conflicting policy measures.”
“There is also a huge potential for unintended consequences that would prohibit activities that define Kauai as a rural community and its special way of life,” Tokioka said. “Fireplaces warm houses in island homes that do not have insulation and many old houses have fireplaces. Many families rely on using fires and smoke houses to prepare food that they catch either hunting or fishing or drying and processing agricultural products grown in their own garden and legislation like this appears to affect these people’s ability to continue to feed their families and practice these cultural activities.”
“We also believe that turning neighborhood disputes into potential criminal cases is not an effective way to resolve issues,” Tokioka said.
Still, Abbey-MacDonald said people should not be so quick to judge.
She and other neighbors say Gonsalves declined several offers to replace his wood-burning fireplace with a gas-powered one for free.
“If the house across the street is fully engulfed in flames, or maybe it’s not even a big fire, and the smoke is coming to you, are you going to shut all of your windows and stay in your house? No, you’re going to evacuate because of smoke inhalation,” Abbey-MacDonald said. “We have to deal with that every single time. For us to be able to breathe fresh air, we’d literally have to pack up our families and leave.”
Bill 2573 will be taken up by the seven-member board during their meeting Wednesday, beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the Historic County Building Council Chambers.