I didn’t plan to testify at yesterday’s meeting of the County Council’s planning committee. But after listening to the comments made by people who want transient vacation rentals (TVRs) to continue on ag land, I just had to speak up.
Like the testimony from Warren Doi, who said that in this current economic climate, “we cannot choke off any potential source of economic activity. Any source of jobs needs to be promoted rather than restricted.” OK, green light for ice dealers.
Then there was Elizabeth Freeman, who started out by saying she usually appears before the Council asking them to recognize one of the volunteers who work so hard on her Festival of Lights. But this time, she was there for herself. Oh, but not really herself. She was there on behalf of the people she employs, and it sure would be a shame if she couldn’t donate the money she makes off her TVR to one of the many community causes she supports.
Later, her gardener and maid were trotted out to beg the Council for the opportunity to keep their jobs. One can only hope that in addition to writing their testimony, Elizabeth also paid them for the indignity.
In between was Harvest Edmonds, who talked of how the TVR she and her husband operated for the last 17 years “supplemented our ability to keep that land.” One would have thought the money they derived as Realtors selling off the North Shore would have paid the bills, but apparently not.
Then Carol Conley told of how the revenue from her rental “makes it possible for me to live on Kauai,” and she just might not be able to stay if she couldn’t do a TVR, and that would be hard on her kids. Of course, she could have bought something she could afford, like a condo in Puhi rather than a parcel on the North Shore....
Next up was the guy who proudly told of how his “homestay” employs seven people. Some of them only work an hour or three a week, but hey, it’s a job, right?
One of my favorites was a lady named Susan, who unwittingly laid out how this whole boondoggle gets started: “Lucy [Kawaihalau]from Kauai Vacation Rentals was kind enough to set us up with vacation rentals.” Yes, so kind. The Realtors sell people land they can’t afford and tell them no worries, they can just vacation rental to make the mortgage and they’ll even handle the property management and bookkeeping. Such a deal.
“What’s wrong with it?” Susan asked. “How is it hurting anyone?”
She apparently was oblivious to such aspects as the way non-ag users result in higher property taxes that drive bonafide farmers out of business, ala Sherwood Conant, and push the cost of farm land out of reach of farmers, much less the fact that it’s illegal under state law.
Most of the people, including Michele Hughes, the developer from Aspen who created Kealia Kai and owns 50 acres with TVRs above Anini and Kauapea beaches – now there’s some top dollar real estate – complained that their land wasn’t really suited to farming.
Surely developers like Michele know they could always go before the state Land Use Commission and seek a reclassification of their land to take it out of agriculture. But it’s so much cheaper to just sneak on through.
Michele, who is really too akamai about the development process to play dumb, claimed, “All these years we’ve done what we thought was right. We went to our lawyers [former deputy county attorney Lorna Nishimitsu among them] and said are we legal and they said yes.” Which might explain why Michele’s website cleverly describes her units as “farm dwellings.” Great cover -- except they aren’t on a farm or dwelt in by farmers.
She also spoke of how she was expecting that there would be “some re-zoning going on” when the Important Ag Land study is completed, with the implication that her land would be among the acreage moved out of ag. How sweet. And yet we keep hearing that no, the IAL designations won’t result in the second Mahele.
Nearly all of the speakers were for the bill, and all who spoke in favor had financial interests in it being passed. But there were a few who spoke against it, including Mel Rapozo and westsider Arthur Brun, who said, “This bill is wrong. What about the local families that had farm land for generations and followed the law? You’re making our families that followed the law suffer. I don’t think you should be punishing the people who followed the law.”
And that’s a very good point. Because under the bill, only those who were already operating will have the chance to apply for the permits. Anyone who waited and followed the law is aced out.
Or as an observer noted: "Once again, the local people who follow the law get screwed while the rich haoles who know how to get around the law make out."
Brun concluded: “Do what is right for the 60,000 people of Kauai, not the 26 people of Kauai.”
But the Council, as Jay Furfaro and bill author Tim Bynum noted more than once, was looking for “closure.” And since they acknowledged, following my testimony, that this bill wasn’t likely to stave off lawsuits from anyone who might be affected by this issue, the closure they’re apparently looking for is to get it off the Council agenda before the election.
Before approving it, they did add an amendment that requires applicants to be engaged in bonafide farming, as evidenced by state and federal tax returns or -- and here's the giant loophole that's big enough for a sleeps 12 mansion -- if the planning commission finds the shape, size, topography or surrounding land uses (you know, like other TVRs) inhibits intensive agriculture. Ladies and gentlemen, let the influence peddling begin.
Anyway, after listening to wealthy people play the victim and whine about how they need more, more, more, I’d had a belly full. And besides, it was time for me to get back to work, where it was a refreshing to man the food pantry and serve people who are truly in need, and grateful for what they get.