LIHUE — For nearly 23 years, Alexis Boilini and Michael Levy have welcomed people from all over the world into their home.
It’s a job that, Boilini said, the couple enjoyed as the operators of Marjorie’s Kauai Inn, a former bed-and-breakfast operation in Lawai.
“If you talk to bed and breakfast owners who have been doing it for a long time, it’s our life because every single day, you’re making a difference in so many people’s lives,” Boilini said.
That all changed on March 9 when they received a letter from the County of Kauai, ordering they cease all B&B operations within two weeks and close down their online website. Not doing so, the notice read, would result in up to a $10,000 a day fine.
“We were told in 14 days to shut down our doors and turn all of these people away with nowhere to go except another island — it’s impossible if they can find something at this point during spring break — and how do we pay our bills to continue to exist?” Boilini said. “How would you feel if you lost your job in 14 days? You’d be scrambling, right?”
It’s a similar message that was sent out to 319 other visitor accommodation providers throughout Kauai, who are operating transient vacation rental (TVR), B&B and homestay businesses without the proper permits, county officials said.
These properties, county Planning Director Michael Dahilig said, were identified by county planning and real property division staff from a list of 4,000 vacation rentals on Kauai.
Some of them, he said, were also found on popular online TVR, B&B and homestay websites like Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner).
“The department began sending out zoning compliance notices to the owners of illegal short-term rentals last year and are going down the list,” Dahilig wrote in an email.
Though homestay and B&B operators may not need a TVR permit to operate, they do need to have a use permit to operate legally, Dahilig explained.
“I think what is really the issue here is that there are some people who have vacation rentals and are trying to become bed and breakfast (operations) and they’re illegal — by doing that, they’re trying to convert themselves into homestays, and you still need a permit to operate a homestay,” Dahilig said. “And then there are other people on the island who still have homestays, who never got a permit in the first place. So during the process of getting people into compliance, both of them, essentially, get pulled into each other.”
But the common message, he said, is the same in either circumstance.
“The practice of applying for permits has gone on for years,” said Dahilig, who pointed out that there are eight legal bed and breakfast operations on Kauai. “The problem here is that people have an attitude that they don’t want to comply with the law, and that’s what this is.”
Some operators like Boilini, however, claim that is not the case.
Many of them, she said, pay state general excise taxes and transient accommodations taxes, and by and large, want to have the proper permits in hand to operate their businesses.
“They thought maybe it was out-of-state people who own these homes and rent them out like TVRs when, in actuality, they are just these families or couples — mostly retired couples — that have been running these B&Bs or homestays, living in the houses, and providing an enhancement to the tourism experience here on the island,” Boilini said. “In zoning ordinances, it is important to have clear definitions otherwise confusion begins and that’s what happened here.”
The problem, she opined, is that existing laws do not sufficiently define what constitutes a homestay or B&B.
“We really want to work with the county because this is something that we’ve been wanting for years — we want there to be a clear permitting process,” Boilini said. “We want a win-win situation, always, and I think it’s just an oversight on their part.”
Although no prior notice was given before the cease-and-desist letters were sent, Dahilig said one should not have been needed. Addressing this issue, he added, has also put a strain on his department’s staff time and resources.
“Do we need to tell somebody that we’re going to do a drug sweep, or do we have to tell somebody that we’re going to be looking at white-collar crimes, so please open your books so we can see what you’re doing,” said Dahilig, who pointed out that the Kauai County Council tasked the Planning Commission with stepping up enforcement efforts. “I think people just aren’t used to the idea that other laws have to be enforced, too.”
A proposed ordinance to establish a process that would permit homestays in the commercial districts, resort zoning districts and residential zoning districts on Kauai will be taken up by the Kauai Planning Commission at its next meeting on April 14, beginning at 9 a.m. in the Moikeha Building, Meeting Room 2A/2B.