Friday, November 27, 2015         


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Fix vacation rentals regulation


Vacation rentals have posed a headache for Oahu's land-use officials and politicians for more than 30 years -- not to mention the headaches of neighbors who complain about the noise of tourist comings and goings.

This defies logic. There should be room to meet some of the demand for nontraditional visitor accommodations, short-term rentals -- with regulations to keep them from becoming too intrusive.

The issue surfaces with regularity for Windward and East Oahu residents -- and recently, amid the debate over a proposed "boutique hotel" in Haleiwa, it's risen on the North Shore radar screen again. The hotel's would-be developer, D.G. "Andy" Anderson, cited the number of unpermitted short-term rentals in the area in response to criticism of his project. Other residents, some of them opponents of the hotel plan, agree with Anderson on this point: The city does not effectively enforce its ban of rentals by those who lack a permit. As a result, they told Star-Advertiser writer Gary Kubota, investors have bought up what used to be homes owned or rented as family dwellings and pushed property values beyond reach of residential purchasers.

In 1989, the city issued its last permits for vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfast units (those in which an owner is present) and declared a moratorium. But enforcing the ban has been difficult at best, especially by city agencies that are already shortstaffed. Without a permit, a dwelling can be rented only for periods of at least 30 days, but establishing the arrival and departure of guests requires investigation that's now unfunded. Further, owners can claim the visitors were nonpaying friends or charity guests -- difficult to disprove, especially given the privacy of tax records.

A new ordinance is needed if the city is ever to get a grip on this situation. Last year, a reasonable bill was introduced to the City Council that would have reopened permitting but only for bed-and-breakfast units that would be tightly regulated. The enforcement would be financed by licensing fees and fines for failure to provide sufficient parking or other lapses. And, to deter illegal rentals, any advertisements for rentals that do not include a legal permit number also would be subject to a fine. Unfortunately, that measure, Bill 7, failed to garner the needed votes after a long, contentious series of hearings.

Maui County officials acknowledged that illegal vacation rentals still persist on their island, but they're at least making some gains on the issue with new regulations adopted in January 2009. Since then about 33 permit holders now operate legal bed-and-breakfast homes.

No regulation will work perfectly, but total inaction is indefensible. The unregulated proliferation of visitor accommodations in residential areas changes the character of neighborhoods. And simply leaving an ineffectual law in place, policed largely by grassroots resident enforcers, constitutes negligence by city government.

The City Council, and the new administration at Honolulu Hale, are unlikely to pursue a new initiative until more critical budgetary and organizational tasks are cleared. But city leaders have to come to terms with this problem, unless they intend for residential zoning rules to lose their potency.

There soon will be five new members on the Council. Perhaps one of them will stand up and show leadership and political will to correct a dysfunction that continues to erode neighborhoods.

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