Though the County Council yesterday rejected a resolution to investigate the transient vacation rental debacle, it did hint that the law itself may be transformed and some questionable “grandfathering” rights challenged in court.
The investigation, proposed by Councilman Mel Rapozo, first came up in May as a way to determine how the numerous problems outlined in this blog's Abuse Chronicles came to be. But it was deferred while the Council gave the planning department a chance to get its act together.
Yesterday, though that act isn't quite together, a Council majority felt the department was far enough along and the root causes of the problem sufficiently revealed to forestall a full scale investigation.
“I will not be voting for this resolution,” said Councilwoman Nadine Nakamara, who then outlined why the law had not been properly implemented: the TVR applications didn't support the requirements of the ordinance; planning staff was insufficient and improperly trained; planning department rejected help when it was offered; inspections were limited; and the Council approved a second TVR ordinance “against the wishes of the community,” which wanted the first ordinance to play out.
As Mel noted, that second ordinance, as well as a third that stripped inspection and eligibility requirements and allowed agricultural landowners to apply, was proposed by the Administration, even as its staff was failing to properly carry out the law. “Were we set up to fail?” he asked.
Nadine, attending her last meeting before assuming her new post as the mayor's managing director, said the Council needs to look at attrition, analyze fees and fines, strengthen the ordinance and “look at the whole improperly granted permit issue to resolve that.”
A planning department review of its files found that 84 percent of the applicants were missing documents required by law to prove eligibility for the life-of-the-property TVR certificates. Applicants had to show they were engaged in the non-conforming TVR use prior to bill's passage, which would qualify them for “grandfathering.” But the county attorney issued an opinion that those certificates must be allowed to stand because the flawed applications were approved by former Planning Director Ian Costa and his deputy, Imai Aiu.
“We know what the problems are and we've got to work together on the solution,” said Nadine, who has requested a Council vote on whether that opinion should be released to the public.
Councilman Gary Hooser, supporting the resolution, said the county would be wise to “hire a qualified independent firm to help us clean this up. It will only add value at the end of the day.”
Councilman Ross Kagawa, who voted against the resolution, said he felt the planning department was making progress, which is what he had requested two months ago when the issue was deferred. Still, he said, “the huge problem is the improperly granted permits that were allowed to continue. We need to find some means to cure that problem.”
Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, who also voted in opposition, said she would like to identify an especially egregious example of an ineligible landowner who got a TVR certificate and take that case to court. If the county prevails, it could then move against others who were not eligible to grandfather their nonconforming use.
Mel and Gary plan to develop proposed amendments to the TVR law, such as requiring applications to provide more eligibility documents upon renewal. Higher fees are also possibly on the horizon.
Planning Director Mike Dahilig said the current yearly fee of $500 does not cover the cost of enforcing and managing the program. “It should be four-to-five times that.”
Higher renewal fees, coupled with the higher property taxes now assessed on TVRs, could prompt some attrition, which is needed to reduce the impact on residential neighborhoods that have been turned into defacto resorts by a proliferation of vacation rentals.
Gary also said the planning department needs to work harder to go after vacation rentals that are operating without any county permits. “It's so in your face to see these ads that are so blatantly illegal,” he said.
Council Chair Jay Furfaro, who left the meeting mid-way to attend a conference, said he had been disturbed watching this week's planning commission meeting, where numerous TVR owners successfully appealed the department's decision not to renew their certificates. He felt “ local attorneys” were unduly influencing the process.
“I get a bit turned off when I see them making suggestions for their clients,” he said. “The tail's wagging the dog here.”
Jay said he also plans to send the Administration a letter advising it to be realistic about the staff needed to properly enforce the TVR law so as to avoid the resurgence of past problems.
“People quite frankly were asleep at the switch,” Jay said. “We need to send a really strong message going forward that we're on top of this. We still have a long ways to go.”
But it least it appears that a transformation is under way.