Waimanalo faces land crackdown
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer
By Eloise Aguiar
WAIMANALO — State and city officials are cracking down on the illegal use of agricultural land. The action affects dozens of acres that have been turned into construction yards, housing units and dumping grounds.
Action has been taken against six properties, and investigations are pending on many more, bringing about 70 acres of land under government scrutiny.
Spotting the illegal activity isn't difficult, but in some cases, the activities have gone on for so long that some people may not know they are illegal. City and state officials expect the word to spread as fines are levied and leases revoked over the zoning violations.
Waimanalo has several large landowners including the state departments of Land & Natural Resources, Agriculture and Hawaiian Home Lands. Almost the entire community is zoned for agricultural use.
"A lot of these folks, they work in the shadows," said Art Challacombe, chief of customer service at the city Department of Planning & Permitting. "They aren't there when we come to the properties, or they won't let us on the property, so it's a cat-and-mouse game."
Government officials have been working with members of the Waimanalo Agriculture Association for about five months, since the violations became too blatant to tolerate any longer, said Tom Staton, owner of Quality Turfgrass.
"We're losing agriculture land because once you establish a base yard and you have all the diesel tanks, hydraulic fuel going into the soil, it's pretty much kablooey," Staton said, adding that many violators are dumping construction rubble on their land and covering it up. "We don't want to see Waimanalo turned into a trash heap."
The agriculture association has compiled a list of 10 alleged offenders and asked government to investigate. State and city actions were taken against four on the list, and the city has taken additional action against two others, including fines of up to $500 a day and notices of violations. State officials are prepared to cancel the lease on one lessee and is investigating three others, state officials said.
Norbert Silva, who admits parking his trucks on his two-acre parcel but not to operating a trash pickup business there, said there are several nursery operations that also conduct construction activity on their sites. They park their trucks on their land, Silva asked, so why can't he?
The law isn't applied equally, and if a person is operating respectfully, then he should be left alone, he said, pointing out a half-dozen companies that are in violation of the zoning law.
Silva said he tried to get a variance for the property, but it was denied. The city has not issued him any notice of violation recently.
"If I gotta get out, then others gotta find another place to park their trucks," he said.
The city Department of Planning & Permitting issued about 1,500 citations islandwide since last May for safety issues, illegal transient vacation units and other zoning violations.
Kevin Andrews, who leases land to businesses in Waimanalo, said the problem is that there is little place in Waimanalo to operate a business, an issue that he says is more serious than the zoning violations.
"There has to be some sanity to the whole picture," Andrews said. "Everyone is just trying to get by."
He and others are working to create a business center in an old quarry, which he said also is zoned for agriculture.
"I don't see agriculture as being important," Andrews said. "We can grow all the food for the entire state on 300 acres. I see the needs of the people as more important than developing agriculture, which is ruining our environment."
The DLNR, which has 99 leases in Waimanalo, is committed to preserving agriculture there, said Peter Young, the department's director. Young said he first learned about the prevalence of violations during a tour of the area in January and called for immediate investigations of four properties.
SENDING A MESSAGE
The staff also is checking allegations of a machine repair shop and housing rentals on a second lease, and a tree-trimming base yard on a third lease, all of which are prohibited on the DLNR leases, Young said. In a fourth investigation, staff is checking land on Saddle City Road that is used by another tree-trimming company, he said.
"If we find additional violations on other lease properties, they will find their way to the board for action," he said.
The violations are not crimes, so enforcement is limited to revoking leases on state land and imposing fines where the city has jurisdiction over fee-simple properties.
If owners don't comply, the city can attach the fines to driver's licenses and vehicle registration, said Challacombe. Recently, the city gave the planning department the clout to put liens on properties, and Challacombe said officials could be moving on the most egregious cases by July 1.
"If we can hit a couple of them and basically foreclose on a couple of properties, that will get the message out loud and clear that the city is serious about enforcement," he said.
Reach Eloise Aguiar at firstname.lastname@example.org.