I spent today in a strange place, moving between the surrealistic realm of the County Council and the real world as I juggled work with time in the Council Chambers to see for myself how the vote on the transient vacation rental (TVR) bill went down.
It took more than three hours for the Council to do its “deliberations” — not that anyone’s mind wasn’t already made up when they got there — before the Clerk finally called the vote and everybody said “aye." Except for Kaipo Asing and Derek Kawakami. They said "no."
But first the Council widened the loophole they added in last time. Thanks to amendments from Daryl Kaneshiro, you don’t actually have to be engaged in bonafide farming, as evidenced by tax returns, to get approval for your TVR on agricultural land. You can still get a permit if the planning commission finds intensive agriculture is prohibited by the shape, size, topography, surrounding land uses OR — and this is today’s big giveaway — for any other reason.
Kaipo did one of his power point presentations that covered a lot of the relevant legal issues, making it quite clear that what the county was doing violated both the intent and the letter of state law. He also read from Judge Ronald Ibarra’s decision on the Big Island’s Hokulia case, which said that luxury homes on ag land will render ag uses unfeasible by inflating the price of adjacent property and, at the mininum, discouraging existing ag use.
“We’re going to end up losing that too,” Kaipo warned, before going on to show aerial photos that make it quite clear we already are.
He focused on the Kilauea area, where he said the county knows of at least 47 ag TVRS, and then honed in on some of the more egregious examples. They were all above Kauapea Beach, which some websites described as “semi-private,” not far from where Sherwood Conant used to farm before high land taxes — driven up by high-end homes — drove him out. Places like Hale ‘Ae Kai, with its 1,600-square-foot pool, which rents for $6,300 per night. And Palama Huna Hale, which rents for $45,000 for six nights — $57,600 during the holiday season. And Hale Lani, whose owner, the extensively-remodeled Michele Hughes, was at the meeting, looking every inch the farmer in her floor-length red ball gown.
“What is this? Is it a hotel?” asked Kaipo as he flicked on a picture of a sprawling mansion.
“It’s disgusting,” said Anne Punohu from the audience.
“This is almost crazy,” Kaipo said. “What in the world are we doing? It’s just incredible what is out there on our ag land in the North Shore area.
“If we allow this bill to go forward, we would not be doing our duty to protect ag land.”
But forward it went, slowed briefly by Jay Furfaro's bizarre power play. He claimed that because Kaipo had relinquished the chairmanship to him during his presentation, he was allowed to keep running the meeting until the vote was taken. Jay called on County Attorney Al Castillo, who backed him up by reciting Roberts Rules of Order. His authority thus cemented, Jay then magnanimously returned the chairmanship to Kaipo.
“My only point here is to have the public understand we are a body governed by rules,” Jay said.
Mmmhmmm. In the animal kingdom, the stags just crash antlers.
Then Tim Bynum expressed his sympathy for TVR owners, saying “Those of you who ordered your economic life, your well being, around the status quo, it’s not fair” to tell you to stop.
Now that would've been a great defense for Bernie Madoff.
And Dickie Chang — even while acknowledging that locals struggling to survive are pissed off by the in-your-face affluence of the luxury TVR owners, and that owners could see a 40 percent increase in the value of their property if their TVR is approved — had this to say about the bill he supported (and his own moral compass):
“Whether it’s right or wrong, we need to move forward.”
I guess that answers the question of whether his private pau hana briefing by beer-bearing county attorneys had any effect on his decision. 'Cause he was against the bill before that little meeting.
Lani Kawahara babbled on about how she wants to see the planning commission “take the most rigorous possible look at these applications and if they deny one, our county attorneys will defend them to the end, the county attorneys are here to fight for the county and protect the county” — proving that she drank the Kool-Aid instead of the beer.
Derek, like Kaipo, got it: it's all about protecting agriculture.
“We try to craft solutions without first identifying the problem,” he said. “For me, the underlying problem really is that ag is struggling to survive.”
As a member of Kauai Economic Development Board’s ag committee, Derek said he tries to give farmers tools to survive. Some farmers had told him that having a vacation rental would be beneficial.
But the bill only allows those operating TVRS prior to 2008 to apply for permits.
“What this does, and what I disagree with, is for many farmers that are really farming, this closes the door for them,” Derek. “It limits the opportunity for a lot of legitimate farmers.”
Strange, how that didn't faze the Council members who kept repeating the mantra of "due process," or shake up Tim's concept of what's fair.
The proper way to approach it, Derek said, would be to ask the Lege to change the law to allow such uses.
Right before the vote, Jay said he had assurances from Planning Director Ian Costa that they will be “taking a hard stand and looking at this very, very quickly.”
Which means the permit application business should be brisk for Belles, Graham, Proudfoot, Wilson & Chun, which already had three attorneys — all of them formerly in the employ of the county — in the Council Chambers, ready to help their clients get a little more icing on their cake.