Monday, February 12, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, February 12, 2001

Diamond Head dwellers feud over height of home

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser East Honolulu Bureau

When Dawn Kishi decided to build her home higher than any other on Poka Street, she was not only flouting neighborhood convention but breaking the law — or so some residents thought.

Public meeting

The East Diamond Head Association height restriction will be discussed at the Waialae-Kahala Neighborhood Board at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Wesley

United Methodist Church, 1350 Hunakai St. For information, call 527-5578.

It was only after the start of construction that will make her home 25 feet tall — 10 feet higher than any other house in the area — that they learned that what she was doing was legal.

That doesn’t make the situation any easier to swallow here, where neighbors are distressed that their treasured views of Diamond Head could be lost, property values affected and the character of their neighborhood changed forever. They are appealing for help from the city, state, courts — anyone who will listen — in an attempt to stop the work.

It’s a battle that has played out time and again across Oahu, anywhere the view is good. Often, changes occur when new residents move into older, stable neighborhoods.

Diamond Head is the latest battleground, but the fight is under way all around East Honolulu. Moanalua Triangle is dealing with it, as are the Portlock Community Association and Kahala. In communities where resident associations are strong, the issue of height and protecting neighbors’ views can be dealt with by residents themselves on the strength of association rules. Elsewhere, many such battles land in court.

"Our position is, we cannot let this happen," said Clark Hatch, East Diamond Head Association president. "This flies in the face of protecting view planes. We bought these places because our views are protected. It would be awful if everyone on Diamond Head Road added 10 feet to their homes. You won’t be able to see Diamond Head from the road."

Kishi said she was merely designing a house that she wanted to live in. "I’m really sorry," Kishi said. "If it was wrong, I’d do something. But it’s within the city code."

Belief was mistaken

Poka Street perches on the eastern slope of Diamond Head, overlooking Black Point and the Pacific beyond. It’s a quiet neighborhood where the 70-plus homes are set back from the street and everyone has a view. Many of the residents are the same ones who first moved into the neighborhood when it was built in the late 1950s. Even among newer residents, most have lived here for years.

Protect yourself from surprises

Views generally are not assured in Hawaii, so a home buyer must check all covenants and restrictions imposed on a property, lawyer Wayne Nasser said.

When buying a home, make sure to read the title report, a document that researches the chain of ownership of a property and shows any encumbrances and restrictions recorded against it. The report also will show if there are any covenants and restrictions imposed by a community association, said Harlin Young, of Harlin Young & Associates, a Honolulu appraisal company.

Homeowners interested in remodeling or adding onto their homes should check their deeds for restrictions before applying for a city building permit. City officials only check for zoning and building code conformity. They do not check for conformance with any community association standards, Young said.

To nearly everyone, there was a belief that building height was limited to 15 feet, that the limitation pertained to all the homes in the community and that the restriction lasted forever.

And that’s true on Pokapahu Place, one street up. But on Poka Street, the height limitation expired 30 years ago.

"It’s an old, established neighborhood," said James Granzow, a Poka Street resident. "When I bought my house two years ago, I was led to believe there were design and height restrictions. That’s why I bought there. We believed that no one could even grow a tree higher than 15 feet."

No one seems to know why the Poka Street deeds were written in such a way that the height restriction would expire, Hatch said, but these differing rules and regulations on the slopes of this world-famous landmark are part of the confusion.

Diamond Head became a state monument in 1965, and three years later, a national natural landmark, and the boundaries were extended to include some residential areas. At the same time, Diamond Head was included in a preservation district, operating under city zoning codes.

But the key is that the entire area is part of a special design district established by Honolulu in 1975 to protect views of Diamond Head and to create a park-like setting for the landmark. While it is a state monument, much of the control over building is left in the hands of city officials.

The special design district runs from Paki Avenue, Monsarrat Avenue and around Diamond Head Road.

25 feet high OK with city

Within the district, the city controls building height, front-yard setback, landscape and architectural design. And city rules allow building to a height of 25 feet everywhere on Oahu — including in the special district — barring deed restrictions or other legal encumbrances.

The residents feel the city needs to restrict building height in the district to 15 feet to protect views of Diamond Head, Granzow said.

"No one is looking after the public’s interest in protecting Diamond Head," Granzow said. "I know we seem self-serving, but we’re really not. No one at any level of government is looking after Diamond Head. I believe the vast majority of the neighbors would like to see the original deed restrictions upheld."

The city has done all it is required to do, said Carol Costa, city spokeswoman.

Residents have circulated a petition urging city and state officials to stop Kishi’s construction and to change the land use ordinances regulating building in the special district, Hatch said. About 50 people signed the petition. Some neighbors say they intend to take legal action.

There have been many instances around Oahu in which the courts have had to decide when there was a dispute between a homeowner seeking to challenge association restrictions on height, setbacks and view planes, said Terry Revere, a Honolulu lawyer with the firm Love Yamamoto Motooka.

"Often the restrictions are worded in a vague or ambiguous way, and the courts appear to rule in favor of the homeowner," Revere said.

Kishi feels she has done her part by keeping the community informed of her plans to build since she bought the property in 1997. She said she presented her plans to the neighborhood association and discussed it with her neighbors. Work is proceeding on her addition.

"I feel the house is inappropriate for our neighborhood," Granzow said. "People come to this neighborhood because they want a special kind of neighborhood. They know that privacy is safeguarded and the homes are all supposed to be indigenous and modern and harmonious to each other."

Outdoor Circle steps in

The issue has captured the attention of the Outdoor Circle, which has long been a strong proponent of preserving views and vistas around Diamond Head, said Mary Steiner, chief executive.

If 25-foot homes are allowed, the view of the crater will be obliterated, Steiner said.

"We think there should be restrictions in place to keep this from happening," she said. "We’re ready to help the community. We think the special design district needs to be reviewed and limit the height of buildings. And the state Department of Land and Natural Resources should be involved. They’re the stewards for Diamond Head and should have a vested interest in it."

Honolulu Councilman Duke Bainum said the issue does merit closer review and that he will look into drafting an ordinance that reduces the height limit in this special district to preserve the views.

"Legislative change is possible," Bainum said. "But it’s a long road. We have to be sensitive to the views of people who live in the neighborhood. But for right now, there’s not much we can do."

Jeff Long, president of Long and Associates, a Honolulu architectural group and Kishi’s architect, said protecting views and the character of the neighborhood is the job of the neighborhood association. To maintain the integrity of the neighborhood, communities must be strict enforcers of restrictive covenants by reviewing new building plans, Long said.

Hawaii Loa Ridge does a good job of this and Kahala now does too, although at one time it didn’t, he said.

What happened in East Diamond Head is that the neighbors passed along the incorrect belief that the height restriction was uniformly 15 feet.

"No one challenged it and were maybe content," Long said.

Until Kishi came along.

"We explained our plans to the community," Long said. "Now it’s an issue, and it’s unfortunate."

Meanwhile, experts said the value of neighbors’ homes definitely will be affected by Kishi’s taller house.

"When dealing with a house on the hillside, it’s usually not the square footage that drives the value," attorney Wayne Nasser said. "It’s the view."

"It’s a very big thing," said Stephany Sofos of SL Sofos and Co., a Honolulu real estate consulting firm. "If someone builds and blocks your view, you lose value.

"Views are an intangible asset."

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