I stopped by a Planning Commission hearing last Friday morning to bang my head against the wall, I mean, check out what's happening with Kauai's most lucrative and bountiful agricultural crop: vacation rentals.
Yep, they're all sliding through the permitting process now, with the owners by and large getting the go-ahead to dramatically increase the value of their properties, rake in outrageous revenues, skew the value of ag land and forever change the character of rural communities like Kilauea.
To their credit, staffers in the county attorney's office and planning department have sought to impose a — gasp! — agricultural dedication on ag lots larger than one acre — an idea proposed by attorney Dan Hempey as a way to get farmers on the land and help TVR owners comply with state law.
But the message from the TVR owners — or rather, the attorneys they sent in their stead — was clear: we don't need no stinking farms.
One after another, the attorneys said screw that pesky ag dedication. Ironically, Charley Foster, Hempey's associate, was among them.
Of course they don't want farms — and most particularly, the kind of people who would labor on them — cracking the carefully constructed facade of opulent exclusivity that they market along with the “private beach” accessed via the illegal trails they supposedly built for “maintenance purposes.”
And while I applaud the county for trying, let's get real: can you imagine how a poor farmer might suffer trying to work on land owned by some of these greedy, narcissistic, money-grubbing speculators, most of whom live off-island?
Which brings me to a question: why aren't these applicants required to show up in person, instead of being allowed to send their attorneys? If they're going to benefit so greatly from the generous gift of a special use permit, can't they at least be bothered to trot their butts down to the meeting room, like those of us testifying against them?
I do have to give Michele Hughes credit for showing face, such that it is, though her attorney, Lorna Nishimitsu, did all the talking. But then, I guess Michele figured it was worth a few hours of her time, seeing as how she had two units up for approval. On that day, anyway.
Which raises another question: why can't we limit these hoteliers to no more than one? Cause isn't it kind of hard to believe that they were actually building a house for themselves and didn't know they couldn't operate it as a TVR when they've got multiple units spread around the island? As an interesting aside, the building permits for the Hughes property show a 2,394-square-foot, two-story “barn” and a 470-square-foot “garden shed,” which is, coincidentally, I'm sure, the approximate size as the two TVRs. Amazing how many “ag buildings” are needed by a non-farm.
Which leads me to yet another question, the question that actually should have preceded all other questions: what about the farm dwelling agreement? You know, the document that ag landowners sign under a notary's seal — with the planning director and county attorney affixing their signatures, too — swearing that the house they're building “is located on and used in connection with a farm where agricultural activity provides income to the family occupying the dwelling?” With family defined as “an individual or two or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption or a group comprising not more than five persons, not related by blood, marriage or by adoption.”
So how, pray tell, do the sleep-20-with-spa mini-resorts like Hale Mana, which was also on the agenda that day, possibly qualify, even if you pretended the steady stream of tourists staying there were a family? And how can one person have more than one unit, seeing as how it's physically impossible to occupy two dwellings at once?
Which raises another question: why didn't the County Council and Mayor move to enforce the farm dwelling agreement against these egregious violators, instead of cowering in the corner and passing a bill legalizing their scams when their attorneys threatened to sue for a “taking?” Cause it sure looks to me like they're the ones doing the “taking,” with both hands, no less.
And aren't these places a blatant violation of the CZO, which defines a dwelling as “a structure used exclusively for residential occupancy and having all necessary facilities for permanent residency;” and single family detached as “a building consisting of only one (1) dwelling unit designed or or occupied by one (1) family?”
I mean, if they can prosecute Councilman Tim Bynum (who voted for the ag TVR bill, btw) for a rice cooker in his family room, surely they can go after those who build resorts on fake farms.
And then there was Laurel Loo, representing an owner at Anini who wanted a permit for the main house and the ADU (additional dwelling unt), too. Gee, I remember when ADUs used to be called “ohana units,” because the Council approved them as a way to provide low-cost housing for permanent island residents. Guess that concept has gone out the window, along with any sense of justice and morality.
Because it's wrong, flat out wrong, to be rewarding people like Bill and Sandy Strong, whose TVR is up for approval by the Commission today, when they intentionally built their houses for resort purposes. I know guys who worked on the Strong house, and it includes elaborate security provisions and fortifications designed to make it attractive as a rental by the paranoid uber rich. What's more, they added on two guest cottages that would have been illegal, except for the covered walkways that connect them to the main house, thus completing the charade that it was all one unit.
Yeah, that's the kind of manure being spread on these faux farms, which in that particular Kilauea neighborhood have actually worked to drive real farms out of business. Did you ever stop to wonder how Will Smith could sell seven acres of ag land with a house for $20 million? It's because his neighbors on the bluff above Kauapea Beach are running luxury mini-hotels.
Which brings me to anther question: shouldn't all the applications in one neighborhood — to use the term loosely — be grouped together so that the Commission might assess the cumulative impact of such uses on a community? As the president of the Kilauea Neighborhood Association pointed out in his testimony on Friday, that agenda alone included more than a dozen TVRs in the Kilauea area; dozens more have been or will be considered at other times. At least, as KNA pleaded, make the developers present their plans to the community before they are rubber stamped for approval.
And then there's this nagging question: how can the county be handing out special permits for TVRs built on CPRs when state law reads “Special permits for land the area of which is greater than fifteen acres or for lands designated as important agricultural lands shall be subject to approval by the land use commission?” Six of the TVRs on last Friday's agenda are on lots larger than 15 acres.
It's not like the county doesn't know about this provision, because on two other applications the staff report states: “Because the subject property is less than 15 acres in size, the Planning Commission does not require final approval by the State Land Use Commission.”
So what gives, guys? Are you just winging it, because you know Protect Our Neighborhood Ohana – the only group holding your feet to the fire — doesn't have the money to challenge this crap in court?
The mayor and certain members of the County Council who approved the ag TVR bill have tried to soothe opponents by cooing, take heart, at least they're being regulated now, and there will never be any more — a platitude now adopted by staff.
But they just don't seem to grasp that the problem lies in how they're being regulated, as well as in the fact that the greedy grabbers got the goodies, and any farmer who decides at some future point that she/he really could use a vacation rental to keep the farm afloat will be shit out of luck.
By then, of course, many of these mini-hotels will have changed hands several times, at great profit, or sold to hotel chains and investment consortiums. And the original developers will be laughing all the way to the bank, saying, “suckas!”
And that, sadly, is land use "planning" in a nutshell on Kauai.