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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 14, 2010

Maui County steps up enforcement to clear public rights-of-way

By Ilima Loomis
Maui News

WAILUKU Homeowners who put rocks, hedges or trees in front of their houses may be asked to remove them, as the county steps up enforcement to clear public rights-of-way.

Some property owners said they were concerned the county's crackdown has been heavy handed. They said they didn't think their landscaping or decorations were causing a problem and were alarmed when the county threatened to cut down the offending shrubberies if they weren't removed by the owners.

But the official hired to enforce the long-standing county law said keeping the road shoulder clear was a safety issue. Code enforcement inspector Jack McCormack said he was willing to work with homeowners who had questions or concerns about the requirements.

"My job is to drive around and look at the county property and make sure there's a safe area for people to pass," he said. "We don't want people to be forced to walk in the street. They need a safe place to go."

The strip of land from the curb or asphalt to a homeowner's property line actually belongs to the county. Under the Maui County Code, that area must be kept clear, so pedestrians can walk safely.

McCormack said many homeowners place large rocks in that area in order to prevent cars from parking in front of their properties, or landscape with plants, bushes and trees.

So far the county has sent "courtesy" letters to about 350 property owners asking them to remove the obstructions. McCormack has followed up with warning letters to about 50 of those homeowners, starting the official enforcement process.

But Kihei homeowner Jim Stewart was dismayed when he received the "courtesy letter" in February asking him to remove rocks, sprinkler risers, a wall and a large hedge from the county right-of-way in front of his Ohina Street home.

Stewart said the landscaping was in place when he bought the home more than seven years ago, and maintained that removing his plants would create an "eyesore."

"I spend $500 a month just maintaining these bushes and trees because they're so beautiful, and it was a shocker to me that I was going to have to rip them out," he said.

Removing them would cost thousands of dollars, he added.

Stewart said he'd never heard a complaint about his landscaping, and that if people said they wanted to walk in front of his house, he would cut a path.

Other properties on his street had complied with the county's request, and now the street has "abandoned and broken-down cars, leaking oil and making the place look like a Third World country," he said.

When Stewart didn't comply with the county's initial letter, he received an official warning notice and was told that if he did not remove the plants the county would do so and bill him for the cost. Stewart said he was consulting a lawyer on the case.

"You can't go and destroy my trees and bushes without this thing being heard. There's got to be a process," he said. "There should be some way to meet halfway, but the county isn't giving me an option."

McCormack said he'd only had to dispatch crews to remove obstructions at two properties so far.

"As soon as I get the cost report, I will send the owners the bill," he said.

Most landowners have been accommodating, he said, and most of the ones who had concerns seemed satisfied after he met with them on their properties to answer their questions and explain what the county is asking for.

McCormack said he was focusing his enforcement on homes where the county had received complaints about obstructions.

"They put things out there to deter cars, but at the same time they've blocked safe access for pedestrians," he said.

While he starts with homes where the county has received complaints about obstructions, McCormack said he will go on to ask all property owners in the neighborhood to clear the right-of-way as well.

"When I'm out there, I do the whole subdivision," he said. "I don't think it's fair to just pick on one or two houses."

Objects that have to be removed include large rocks, sticks, rebar, landscape lights and borders. For vegetation, McCormack said he's asking homeowners to clear a 5-foot area from the edge of the asphalt or curb toward their property line. Trees don't necessarily have to be removed, but the owner needs to provide at least a 36-inch path in front of or behind the tree, he said.

"We're trying to save as many trees as we can, as long as they don't become a safety issue," he said.

The requirement to keep rights-of-way clear is a longtime county law, but McCormack said it has become a bigger concern in recent years, possibly because the tough economy is making "slip and fall" lawsuits against the county more attractive for some residents and visitors.

McCormack said the county had been hoping for some time to step up enforcement of the right-of-way issue, but that the process was held up because of the time it took to hire him for the job.

So far he has focused on neighborhoods in Haiku, Kahului, Waiehu and Kihei, but he said the effort is islandwide, and he will head to Lahaina next.

"I was hired in September," he said. "I'm trying to focus on one subdivision at a time so that I'm equitable to all the neighbors, but also distribute (enforcement) to all areas of the island so no one area feels like they're being attacked."

McCormack and his supervisor met with residents in a community meeting Wednesday at the Kalama Heights Retirement Residence. He said some of the homeowners still seemed upset after the meeting, but many people said they appreciated getting answers to their questions and understood the county's position.

Kihei resident Tony Fisher said about 35 people attended the meeting he helped organize.

"It was extremely helpful," he said. "Right now, I feel better about it."

While the county might have softened the blow by stepping up enforcement more gradually, the effort made sense overall, Fisher said.

"People have planted trees and bushes and built fences and walls in that area between the edge of their property line and the curb, and that's really what the problem is," he said. "They're trying to create an area where people can walk and not be on the street."