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Deserted homes havens for pests

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Lila Rattner sprayed herself with mosquito repellant spray at her home in Ewa on Friday. The Rattner family can no longer enjoy the outdoors because of mosquito infestation in an abandoned koi pond at their neighbor's house, which has been vacant for two years.
  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
    An abandoned koi pond has become the source of a mosquito infestation in Ewa. The property has been vacant for two years.
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Lila Rattner and her family have been under siege for the last two years, ever since their neighbors in Ewa vacated a $600,000 house, leaving behind a fully stocked koi pond that has become a mosquito breeding ground.

The pestilence has gotten worse in the last several weeks as summer has heated up. So Rattner has called every department and everyone she can think of in city and state government, but keeps getting told that agencies are understaffed and powerless to drain a living koi pond — or otherwise wipe out mosquitoes — on private property without the owner’s permission.

Rattner’s problem at the Carriages subdivision in Ewa by Gentry is part of the fallout from Hawaii’s ever-increasing rate of home foreclosures.

But while some residents near abandoned homes face wild, unkempt and desiccated yards, Rattner’s frustrations are measured by mosquito bite scars.

One morning this week, she took her 4-year-old black Labrador, Beauty, into her back yard for a nature call.

"I got bit six times in barely three minutes," Rattner said. "My poor dog is scratching so much she’s losing fur."

PESKY PROPERTIES

Number of complaints regarding property problems, such as overgrown yards:

» Fiscal year 2008: 62

» Fiscal year 2009: 99, but includes more than 20 complaints about homes owned by a single landowner, Japanese billionaire Genshiro Kawamoto.

» Fiscal year 2010: 68

Source: City and County of Honolulu

The problem of abandoned homes even affects condominiums, where neighbors have seen bugs and rodents scurrying out from apartment doors because the previous occupants left food behind.

"It creates all sorts of problems," said Jane Sugimura, president of the Hawaii Council of Associations of Apartment Owners. "All of the other owners are affected."

Homeowners who belong to associations often are frustrated that they must follow bylaws while abandoned homes become blights on their neighborhood, said Greg Peterson, past president of the board of the Villages of Kapolei Homeowners Association that represents about 2,500 families in nine subdivisions.

Peterson no longer speaks for the board. But he has seen the frustration of homeowners who suddenly find themselves living next to abandoned and overgrown property.

"They have to maintain their lawns while the previous homeowner no longer has a vested interest in their property — the grass is overgrown, busted windows in some cases," Peterson said. "It can get real bad because of the climate and the way that things are. A lot of people are losing their homes."

Rick Hobson, vice president of sales and marketing for Gentry Homes, which built Rattner’s subdivision, appreciates her problem.

Hobson lives in Prescott by Gentry in the Ewa by Gentry development, right next door to a house that’s sat empty for two years.

For the first six months after it was abandoned, Hobson would water his neighbor’s yard and cut the grass to try to preserve his home’s property value in their cul-de-sac.

"There isn’t anything in Hawaii or within the association that requires the lender to have some sort of responsibility in maintaining that property, so it gets to be blighted," Hobson said. "I’m a vice president for the builder and I’m in the exact same situation."

The property behind Rattner is still owned by a couple who now live in Coronado, Calif., according to Gentry Homes.

But Wells Fargo is in the process of foreclosing on the home, Gentry officials said.

Last week, an inspector from the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting visited the property behind Rattner’s house, a city spokesman said. City officials will issue a notice of violation for the overgrown yard, the spokesman said, and will require the koi pond to be drained or enclosed in a fence.

But the city’s notices won’t necessarily lead to immediate action over an abandoned house in the process of foreclosure.

The delays mean that Lisa and Bart Schmidt, their four children and two dogs can’t spend time in their back yard.

They moved next door to the Rattners last month and quickly realized that they can no longer barbecue, one of their favorite family activities.

"We live in our back yard, but we haven’t been able to enjoy it since we moved in because the mosquitoes are so awful," Lisa said. "The kids itch all the time."

Friends and neighbors tell Rattner she should just hop her backyard fence and pour bleach into the 20-by-10-foot pond, which contains at least three orange koi, one white koi and dozens of brown, inch-long fish.

But that would be trespassing "and I don’t want to kill the koi," Rattner said. "They’re beautiful."

The original owner of the 3,100-square-foot, two-story home installed the pond when she moved in nine years ago and shaded it with palms and other foliage, which apparently has prevented the pond from drying out in the Ewa heat, Rattner said.

The original owner and her young children spent hours by the pond enjoying the koi, turtles and other creatures they stocked it with, Rattner said.

"It was beautiful," Rattner said. "It was gorgeous."

But the latest owners suddenly walked away from the house about two years ago, leaving behind the koi, which seem to thrive by eating the mosquito larvae, Rattner said.

In an "extreme" health emergency, state officials could seek a judge’s order to go onto private property to eradicate pests, said Laurence Lau, the Health Department’s director for environmental health.

But the department lost all of its workers who do mosquito abatement in the beginning of the year because of staff cutbacks.

"Basically it’s a moot point because we’re so small now," Lau said. "We just don’t have the people to inspect and we definitely don’t have the people to do treatment. It’s just a very difficult situation."

 

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