“Why do people hate vacation rentals so much?” asked a friend who has one.
We were talking, of course, about the controversial and contentious ones that are outside designated Visitor Destination Areas and so must seek permits to get grandfathered in as legal uses.
I replied that I thought it had something to do with folks like Joe Brescia, who build lavish homes right on the beach and overwhelm residential communities with their commercial properties. This, in turn, raises property values and cuts into the supply of longterm rentals, both of which can work to push locals out. And in the process, neighborhoods are turned into defacto resorts, complete with beach umbrellas, teak lounge chairs and the stink of sunscreen on stretches of sand that only fishermen used to frequent.
At least, that’s the case in places like Wainiha, Haena, Hanalei and Kekaha.
On ag land, the same issues of rising property values and speculation come into play, unless it’s a rare bonafide farmer with the TVR, and then such activities are generally considered OK, because they help the farmer keep farming, and that’s a good thing.
Otherwise, the gentrification associated with ag TVRs works to push the price of land beyond what farmers can afford to pay. Those who do manage to pull off a farm get complaints from non-farming neighbors about noise and dust and trees that block their views.
But there’s more to it than that. Beneath it all runs a thick layer of resentment that folks, many of them living elsewhere, and many of them organized into investment groups, are making serious money off Kauai while giving nothing back. Indeed, they often show total disdain for the community, what with building on burials, blocking beach access and building big ass houses that are totally out of place and character.
In other words, people are feathering their personal nests at public expense. In many ways, TVRS are the worst expression of the old take up space, use up resources and move on mentality.
Undeniably, some of this resentment is linked to racial and economic animosities, because let's face it, many of Kauai's TVRs are owned by rich haoles.
From what I hear, such animosities apparently prompted at least one inspector to be over-zealous in issuing permit denials for bogus violations, which left the county open to litigation. And that’s reportedly why the Planning Commission reversed some of these denials in a hush-hush process that has TVR critics complaining about lack of transparency and Prosecutor Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho issuing subpoenas for those records.
It’s unclear whether Shaylene actually intends to get to the bottom of things and prosecute folks for the misdemeanor violation of operating an illegal TVR, or if she’s merely trying to make political hay and feed her feud with the current county administration.
However, in recent testimony by Protect Our Neighborhood Ohana (PONO) to the County Council, it appears that some of the TVRs that were denied did indeed have legitimate violations:
“Approvals” have been granted for some Wainiha/Haena TVR's despite habitation of ground-floor units for TVR use. Some approvals now illegally allow habitation on the ground floor of structures located within designated flood plain areas in violation of the National Flood Insurance Program and Flood Plain Management, County Code, Chapter 15: which states that Space below the lowest floor may be enclosed solely for parking of vehicles, building access, or storage.
PONO also has asked the County Council to launch an investigation or audit. In testimony delivered to the panel, it stated:
We do not support giving the Planning Department any additional authority to further grant “enforcement deals” regarding transient vacation rentals. PONO asks that the County Council exercise their oversight responsibilities regarding the implementation of Ordinance 876 & 864 which has been a fiasco. Lack of transparency has reached new lows in our Planning Department and Commission.
The group further testified that it appears that some applications were accepted after the Oct. 15, 2008 deadline, and some approvals were granted after the March 30, 2009 cutoff. It also questioned whether the Planning Department had fully considered the cumulative impact of TVRs on a neighborhood, as required under Special Management Area rules, as well as the General Plan.
The group roundly criticized the Planning Department’s lack of disclosure:
Although the ordinance provides for the files to be publicly available by March 2, 2009, they have been largely kept secret. No files were available at the counter as required. PONO filed a Request to Access Government Documents on April 14, 2009 which has yet to be complied with. To date, only a small percentage of the files requested have been made available to PONO.
PONO further states:
The Council should be concerned about the absence of files available for public review and scrutiny. In addition, the files which were made available to PONO were egregiously lacking in the information required by the Ordinance.
The group then cited such examples as “no documentation or report of the required inspection of the premises, whether inspection occurred, or any indication the subject property passed or failed the inspection … No indication in the files whether or not the applicant had claimed a Permanent Home Use Real Property exemption on their property …[and] no signatures of approving staffers."
Meanwhile, PONO has filed its own lawsuit against the county planning commission over its denial of their request to appeal some of the North Shore TVR approvals. So now the county is looking at lawsuits from both TVR opponents and proponents.
It seems the Council, which drafted this law, and Carvalho’s administration, which is charged with implementing it, need to sit down together and straighten out this mess before they dig the hole any deeper.
"It wasn't supposed to be just a registry," said Caren Diamond of PONO, explaining that the law was intended to grant permits to TVR owners who had properly applied, paid their taxes and otherwise followed the law. "Instead, the Planning Department has approved them across the board."
And that leads to yet another reason for TVR hatred, the sense that some folks are flouting the law while the county once again looks the other way — or worse, condones it.