Maui rentals under permit siege
By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Maui Bureau
WAILUKU, Maui At one vacation rental, police showed up at 6:30 a.m. with search warrants and demanded that guests leave.
At another, the owner was given two weeks to shut down and ordered to return more than $10,000 in deposit money.
Still another owner said he was forced to sell his vacation rental properties and move elsewhere.
Such stories have surfaced in a simmering controversy involving Maui County vacation rental and bed-and-breakfast operations, most of which are operating illegally under the county's zoning laws.
Property owners say they are the targets in a campaign against an industry that brings Maui tens of millions in tourist dollars.
County Planning Director John Min said inspectors have cooled off on enforcement and are responding to complaints only.
"We're not targeting the industry," Min said. "A lot of people were honestly surprised to know they were operating illegally, and there may have been some bad experiences."
Emotions spilled over at the Maui County Council this week as operators related what they described as horror stories in their dealings with zoning inspectors.
"Please, we urge you, please help stop this madness," said Doug Self, co-owner of the Huelo Point Flower Farm, a vacation rental on Maui's north shore.
The council's Land Use Committee adopted a resolution asking the administration of Mayor James "Kimo" Apana to back off on enforcement except in cases of legitimate nuisance complaints.
Laws to change
Administration officials acknowledge that small, short-term vacation rentals have their place on Maui, and say they will modify the ordinances that make outlaws of most of the county's estimated 5,000 vacation rental operators.
The Planning Department has hired a consultant to study the impact of vacation rentals on land values in agricultural districts and on the rental housing market. A survey also is being conducted to see whether residents believe vacation rentals should be allowed in residential and rural communities.
Min said some complaints needed to be addressed, such as the claim that vacation rentals exacerbate Maui's long-term rental shortage and disturb the tranquility of some neighborhoods.
He said meetings would be held with the Maui, Moloka'i and Lana'i planning commissions beginning tomorrow to review county policies related to vacation rental uses and discuss proposals to allow them in residential and rural neighborhoods.
Property owners, who have formed the Maui Vacation Rental Association to represent them, contend the county mishandled enforcement, leaving scars in the community. At last week's meetings, county officials were accused of everything from harassment and selective enforcement to racial discrimination.
Bed-and-breakfast owner Michael Hunter of Lana'i said two months ago he was subjected to "a terror attack" from the Planning Department enforcement division.
"(The enforcement action) has inflicted far greater damage on my family's life in two months than our business could ever inflict upon the small community of Lana'i in a lifetime of operation," he said.
Huelo vacation rental owner Guy Fisher said that in October he and his partner were given two weeks to close down business and remove their Web site.
"Can you imagine how we felt?" he said. "Our business was already suffering after 9/11. We were barely making it, and we had many future reservations we needed to honor."
Home-based vacation rentals, many with absentee owners, and owner-operated bed-and-breakfasts have become an increasingly popular alternative to hotels.
Three years ago, a Maui County Council committee looking into why so few establishments had applied for permits under the county's new bed-and-breakfast law asked the Planning Department to determine the economic scope of the business.
Min said an Internet search discovered scores of vacation rentals from Lahaina to Hana and Moloka'i to Lana'i. Letters were sent to owners suspected of being in violation of the law. It soon it became apparent the industry was much larger than anyone thought, Min said.
Council Member Alan Arakawa and others have accused the Apana administration of going out of its way to conduct a mass enforcement campaign against vacation rentals, but Min claims that has never been the case. In the last two years, he said, only about 70 complaints against vacation rentals have been investigated.
"That is hardly a sweeping enforcement, when one considers that there may be several hundred unpermitted B&Bs and several thousand unpermitted short-term vacation rentals."
David Dantes, a vacation rental operator in Ha'iku and vice president of the Maui Vacation Rental Association, said he was contacted in October by a county zoning inspector who found his advertisement on the Internet and warned him that he needed special permits or he would have to close.
Dantes began the process of applying. "I found out I would have to have the same standards as the Grand Wailea Resort," he said.
Since his home is not in an urban district, he is required to have a state special-use permit for non-agricultural use and a county conditional-use permit to use an 'ohana unit for short-term rentals.
It took him a month to prepare his permit application, which included such things as scale maps of the property and others within 500 feet, soil classification and a topographical survey.
He said the application process could take a year to complete and cost thousands of dollars, and the permit is good only for a year.
A former physician, Dantes said vacation rental owners are being targeted in part because of misunderstanding about who they are.
"There's a myth that vacation rental owners are wealthy, live on the Atlantic seaboard, rape the land, don't pay taxes and don't give a damn about Maui," Dantes said. "The truth is, most work two jobs. They welcome strangers in the home with a spirit of aloha because that's what they want to do."
The owners say they are providing a needed service to visitors who would not stay in a hotel, such as windsurfers who come to Maui to stay on the north shore.
The Maui Vacation Rental Association has submitted a proposal that would legalize the rentals with annual registration.
Min said the proposal will be considered along with other options, such as what was done in the city and county of Honolulu in the late 1980s: legalize existing operations and put restrictions on new ones.
Reach Timothy Hurley at email@example.com or (808) 244-4880.