It was a little disheartening to listen to the County Council's first reading of the proposed homestay/B&B bill because I kept getting flashbacks to the transient vacation rental (TVR) debacle.
As homestay operators and Realtors came before the Council, they made pretty much the same arguments as their TVR predecessors: We never knew we needed a permit; we don't need no stinking regulations; absolutely no caps on the total permits granted; we're not bothering anybody; everyone should be grandfathered in; it's a great way for the County to make money; it's the only way “local folks” can hold on to their houses, and the real capper — well, if you don't want them in residential neighborhoods, then just open up the ag lands.
When Councilman Ross Kagawa noted “Hanalei is gone” and “we haven't even solved the TVR thing,” after wondering why the county had waited until it had 320 cease and desist orders before dealing with the homestay issue, well, that pretty much says it all, doesn't it?
To his credit, Councilman Mason Chock said the county really needed to prepare itself, because AirBnB and VRBO were “coming like a freight train.” But he apparently does not realize that train is already in the station, with hundreds of property owners now using those sites to advertise their illegal TVRs/homestays/B&Bs on Kauai.
Per usual, the county is trying to close the barn door years after the cows got out and moseyed into the meadow.
Councilman Gary Hooser, meanwhile, was absent, even though he'd promised prospective voters, while seeking donations for another Council run, that homestays would be one of his top priorities. But he and his HAPA group have a hot date in Switzerland, and we already know that ranks higher than his dull old Council duties.
Eddi Henry, a retired mortgage banker who bought a house on ag land in Moloaa that she now operates as “curated lodging experience” known as The Palmwood, first played the sympathy card — “We're all retired senior citizens” — before claiming that TVRs and homestays “are completely different animals.”
Except, of course, the TVRs that converted to homestays so they could fly under the radar. Which is why some of us who have been following this issue for a long time are kind of skeptical, and why any TVR cited for illegal operations should be barred from applying for a homestay permit.
Nicki Pignoli, who has a B&B in Kilauea, brought up “the inequity” of the B&B/homestay ordinance, compared to the TVR ordinance, where folks were never issued cease and desist notices while the law was being written and then were “automatically grandfathered if they'd paid taxes.”
And how well did that work? The county was slammed with TVR applications, most of which failed to properly document they were entitled to the permit, and then Planning Director Ian Costa ended up signing off on mass approvals, which gave homeowners a valuable TVR certificate for the life of the property. Meanwhile, folks who actually had followed the law and never started a TVR were forever excluded from having one.
Then the Council made matters worse by allowing TVRs on ag land, while removing all the inspection requirements. Never mind that the North Shore ag lands were some of the best on the island, and now they've been gentrified and fenced off to the place where kanaka maoli are pretty much excluded, except as cleaners and yard boys.
Can the County Council possibly be considering making the same stupid mistakes with homestays/B&Bs as it again grapples with “finding the balance” between property owners who want to maximize their investments and citizens who want a real neighborhood?
Though The Garden Island printed only testimony from those opposed to regulations, Caren Diamond and Sam Lee — neither has a financial stake in the issue, and both have seen their Poipu and Wainiha neighborhoods commercialized with TVRs — made some very salient points.
Sam lives in a 58-home enclave where 27 of the houses have already converted to TVRs, prompting the county to consider turning the entire neighborhood into a Visitor Destination Area. While residents are receptive to B&Bs “in some settings under certain conditions,” he thinks a Class IV zoning permit should be required to ensure a public hearing and citizen review of homestay applications.
The community is especially adamant that the county cap the number of B&B/homestay permits granted, Sam said. “The industry has been unable to self-regulate, suggesting a limit of this kind is imperative.”
Caren, who witnessed the mess caused by the planning department's inability to handle the flood of TVR permits, supported a B&B cap as a way to ensure permit applications are properly processed. She also recommended the county impose a moratorium on B&B/homestay permits pending approval of a regulating ordinance.
If the county had done that during the TVR debate, more than half the TVRs that got permits wouldn't have been approved, she said. In any case, if the county now wants to allow B&Bs, then it needs to reduce the number of TVR permits. With Kauai hosting 1.25 million visitors annually, if all the tourists stay in residential neighborhoods, where will the residents live?
As Ross noted, hammering out the ordinance is going to be a long, painful process. A public hearing is set for May 19, and then the planning committee will take up the issue on May 27.