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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 30, 2006

Big Isle offering building amnesty

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau


For more information about the Big Island amnesty program, and to see a worksheet on the permit process: 961-8321 or www.co.hawaii.hi.us.

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HILO, Hawai'i County officials on the Big Island are offering "amnesty" to owners of homes and other structures that were built without proper building, electrical and plumbing permits, to encourage people to comply with the county building code.

No one knows how many illegal structures have been built on the Big Island, but county Councilman Gary Safarik, who represents Puna, said he believes there are "a lot" in his district.

Safarik said people move into isolated rural Puna subdivisions to begin building on some of the thousands of vacant lots there, but run out of money before they can complete their homes and the permit process.

Some can't afford to rent a finished house, so they live in those sub-standard structures for years, hoping to eventually scrape together the money they need to complete their homes, he said.

The amnesty approved by the county council takes effect tomorrow, and gives owners of unpermitted homes a year to complete the permit process and avoid the fines normally imposed for erecting structures without the proper permits.

However, county chief engineer Bruce McClure said owners still have to pay the regular permit fees and undergo inspections to prove their buildings meet the requirements of the county building, electrical and plumbing codes before the process can be completed to legalize the structure.

McClure said permitting would ordinarily cost $300 to $600 for a home, and the regular permit fee is usually doubled for illegal structures as a penalty. That penalty will be waived for the next year for illegal structures built before Jan. 1, 2006.

He said the county has never had the manpower necessary to seek out and cite people with unpermitted structures.

"It's been so busy with the building boom that we've focused on issuing the permits and then doing the inspections, so we look forward to the people coming in and letting us know, and then we'll help them get legal," he said.

Officials on Kaua'i and in Honolulu said they have no plans for similar amnesty programs because building without permits is not considered a major problem on either island.

Henry Eng, director of the Honolulu city Department of Planning and Permitting, said unpermitted structures are less of an issue on O'ahu because it is so much more urbanized.

City officials respond to complaints from the public about violations, and issued 440 notices of violation of zoning or building codes in the last fiscal year, with many of those citations issued for building without a permit, he said.

The bills creating the amnesty program were introduced by council member Virginia Isbell, who said she got the idea from Kona farmers.

Those farmers want to legalize structures that were built without permits on agricultural lands many years ago. At that time, getting a permit to add on to a house or put up a needed farm structure meant a special trip across the island to Hilo, and many people couldn't or wouldn't make the trip, Isbell said.

"It isn't like they came in last year and built a house that was totally non-conforming," she said. "They just did this as a matter of survival."

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com.