Hawaii Residents Continue to Seek Building Permits in High-Risk Zones

Mayor Harry Kim has instructed county staff to “learn from our mistakes” as they plan the long-term lava recovery, a reference to decisions made decades ago when Hawaii County authorized development of large subdivisions in the most dangerous lava zones.

by Kevin Dayton, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / May 3, 2019
In this May 7, 2018 photo provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, smoke rises from a fissure in Leilani Estates in Pahoa, Hawaii. Hawaii's erupting Kilauea volcano has destroyed homes and forced the evacuations of more than a thousand people. AP

(TNS) — Hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal funding have been committed to help Lower Puna recover from last year’s devastating Kilauea Volcano eruption, but county officials still haven’t decided how or whether to limit development in the highest-risk lava zones.

It might end up a decision by default: Since the eruption subsided in August, county officials say, 127 people have pulled permits to build or rebuild in Lava Zone 1, which includes areas experiencing recent flows. Nearly half of those building permits are for Leilani Estates, a residential subdivision where the first of 24 fissures began spewing lava one year ago today.

Leilani is smack on Kilauea's lower East Rift Zone.

Mayor Harry Kim has instructed county staff to “learn from our mistakes” as they plan the long-term lava recovery, a reference to decisions made decades ago when the county authorized development of large subdivisions in the most dangerous lava zones.

Final decisions on relocation programs or future development in the lava zones aren’t expected until the end of this year or later, but in the meantime, pressure is building on the county to take action. More than 700 homes were destroyed by lava, displacing an estimated 3,000 people. With housing in such short supply, many residents are ready to take their chances building or rebuilding on cheap land in Lower Puna that the U.S. Geological Survey has designated as Lava Zone 1 or 2, which are the highest-risk zones.

“Although it would have been desirable to have a moratorium in place” on building in the highest-risk areas, there is no emergency proclamation or other authority in effect today to prevent construction there, said Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Kim. “Everything is status quo, as it applies to any other property in the county.”

The county Department of Research and Development is developing a “risk analysis” study of the areas affected by the 2018 lava flow, but residents who were cut off from their land and homes want the county to act now to reopen roads.

“It’s a little frustrating to see how much money is coming to the county and there are no ’dozers on the roads,” said Susan Kim, whose property in Kapoho Farms Lots was covered with lava last year. “The community is really feeling like the county administration is making excuses to delay.”

A group called I Mua Lower Puna estimates that opening a temporary road along Highway 132 through the Four Corners area of Kapoho would restore access to 57 properties that were cut off by lava, allowing residents to return home. The goal of the group is to ensure federal disaster funds are actually targeted at the disaster victims and disaster areas in Lower Puna.

And that pool of public funding for recovery is large and growing. Data compiled by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s office as of April 15 show the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided or committed to provide $177 million to help repair public facilities such as roads, waterlines and parks, while the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed to provide nearly $22 million more.

Residents yearn to return

The U.S. Small Business Association is providing $41 million in loans, and FEMA and the U.S. Department of Labor are providing nearly $14 million more to help individual residents affected by the eruption. That list of federal funds includes recovery money for both the lava flows and damage done by Hurricane Lane last year.

Those totals do not include $22 million already provided by the state for the lava response and recovery or the $60 million in loans and grants approved by the state Legislature and Gov. David Ige this spring. Schatz said “tens of millions” of additional federal funding is expected from the federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program.

Schatz, who as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee helped direct much of that aid to Puna, said, “It is a perfectly legitimate question to ask whether it is appropriate to rebuild in the area that was so utterly destroyed, and that is not my kuleana [responsibility] to decide.

“The question of where communities are located is for those communities and the county to decide together,” he said. “My job is to provide federal resources in the case of a disaster, but I think it is perfectly valid to take a breath and make a collective determination about whether it makes sense to rebuild in the same place.

“The county has tough choices in front of it, and the arrival of federal money may accelerate the time frame for coming to a conclusion,” Schatz said.

According to the county, the total dollar value of “lava impacts” from last year’s eruption in the rural communities in Lower Puna is about $800 million.

That includes $236 million in damage to roads, waterlines and other public facilities. The county estimates that the community suffered an additional $222 million in economic impacts over the past year, plus about $28 million in farm losses.

There is no firm estimate of the value of more than 700 homes that were destroyed by the lava flows, but the county calculates the damage to private property reduced its tax rolls by $296 million.

Many of the evacuated residents, including Debra Smith, feel a powerful pull back into the area. Even after lava destroyed her home and covered most of her 5 acres of land, Smith still feels drawn to Kapoho. After the eruption ended, she and her husband bought another property with a house next to what was left of their land, “and we now have something to go back to,” she said.

To get to the land, they must hike 45 minutes over lava, but “when we’re there, it’s home. We planned on spending the rest of our lives there, and there’s no better place on the island than Kapoho.”

Smith said the county took too long to begin the planning process and too long to begin opening the roads.

“We could be in there now if they would have done the planning process during this six-month waiting period,” she said. “We’re all begging to go home, and nobody’s giving us any hope that we are going to until the last month or so.”

Long-term strategy a priority

Takemoto said deciding what future development to allow in the lava zones is a decision to be made by the Hawaii County Council, and “as critical as that decision is, it’s not the critical path, in my mind.”

“That is to come. In the meantime, these options are being developed for those who want to move on these options irrespective of whatever policies eventually come down,” Takemoto said.

The administration is working with Council members on an ordinance to provide a framework that could be stood up in future disasters to identify temporary positions that need to be filled to manage the recovery, he said.

The county secured a $1.7 million disaster case management grant this year from FEMA that will involve reaching out to each parcel owner who was affected.

Under that grant the county will gather information on what benefits property owners have received, what their current needs are, and also to let them know what options are being considered for the long-term recovery plan, he said.

The county is now recruiting three temporary workers who would manage the grant, and is seeking proposals from contractors who want to handle the actual case management work, he said. The interviews of property owners should start in June, Takemoto said.

The county has also produced an “interim recovery strategy,” and plans to test out or pilot a program to help residents move to safer areas “on a voluntary basis, if it meets their needs,” he said.

Other initiatives the county hopes to test out in the near term as ways to assist people affected by the eruption include a revolving loan program to help with construction financing and the use of preapproved, factory-built housing to speed rebuilding.

The county also hired a consultant called Tetra Tech under a $1.6 million contract to develop a longer-term recovery plan, and part of the work Tetra Tech will do involves developing ways to reduce exposure to future eruptions, Takemoto said.

Longer-term options might include establishing a community land trust in which the county would award a grant to a nonprofit that would then buy land to develop housing for affected families. It might also involve incentives to private landowners to encourage development of affordable rentals, Takemoto said.

Those activities would definitely have to take place outside of the riskiest two lava zones, he said. “We’re not going to repeat that past mistake. We’re going to use these means to encourage relocation out of the area,” Takemoto said.

One possibility being considered is that lot owners in the high-risk zones would need to give up title to their lots in the hazard zone in order to participate, he said.

Highway projects pending

In the meantime, the county Department of Public Works is preparing to build an unpaved temporary access road along Highway 132, which extends from the Leilani area to Kapoho and was the transportation backbone for the area before the eruption.

“The immediate goal is to provide access to homes and farms in various kipuka,” or areas of land surrounded by recent lava flows where farms or houses may still be standing, according to the department.

In an emailed response to questions, DPW said it plans to complete the permitting and design work for the temporary road by August, with construction to follow. The Federal Highway Administration will pay the entire cost of the temporary road, which is to be completed by Oct. 5.

For the longer-term transportation solution, DPW plans to award a contract within the next month to study alternatives for Highway 132. That study will determine whether the highway can be rebuilt within the existing right of way or whether the county will have to construct and maintain a substandard road, the department said.

“Decisions about the road network in the lower East Rift Zone, including Highway 137 (along the Puna coast), will be made during the long-term recovery planning process,” according to DPW’s written statement. “That community- driven process is scheduled to be completed by the end of the calendar year.”

Diane Ley, director of the county Department of Research and Development and Kilauea eruption recovery manager, said in a written response to questions that the county’s Recovery Engagement Team has reached out to more than 700 people, including students, throughout the affected communities.

Once the information is compiled, the team will go back out to the community to share in “talk/action” sessions and seek additional feedback, Ley said.

“This community engagement process is supporting efforts to assess and update the community objectives as defined in the Puna Community Development Plan and inform short-term actions for the county to take and long-term planning,” she wrote.

At testimony at a Hawaii County Council meeting on April 10, Susan Kim, the Kapoho property owner, suggested there is another way.

“If you rebuild the roads, we can leapfrog all these studies, frameworks, and simply let the community build itself,” she told Council members. “We need surveyors, bulldozers, draftsmen, builders, electricians, plumbers to build on our property. Then the county can tax on our new builds.”

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