PUNA >> In recent years Hawaii families and mainland retirees have flocked to this sprawling district to snap up property still within reach for those with low to moderate incomes.
Today there are about 45,300 people living in the Puna district, more than double the total in 1990.
But cheap land comes at a price.
Subdivisions in Puna, whose population is forecast to exceed Hilo’s within the decade, have no water or sewer lines, no publicly funded road upkeep (and many unpaved roads) and no home mail delivery. Some don’t have access to electricity.
A loaf of bread, a doctor’s visit or access to key county services oftentimes requires a
30-minute drive to Hilo. Internet service is poor (think dial-up) to nonexistent. And there are large cellphone dead spots.
Year Hawaiian Paradise Park was established
Source: Hawaiian Paradise Park Owners Assocation
As Puna’s population continues to swell, there are mounting questions about how much more growth this area can handle without significant infrastructure improvements. Many residents are also critical of the pace of efforts to address their needs — and some say they’re not getting their fair share of government spending.
June Conant, Hawaiian Paradise Park Owners Association president, said residents who live in private Puna subdivisions are getting "nothing for our county taxes."
"Zero," she said. "And the people are just tired of it."
That’s a common refrain in Hawaiian Paradise Park — known by residents as HPP — and neighboring subdivisions.
And it’s one that county and state officials hotly dispute.
THEY SAY the situation is far from simple because unlike most subdivisions, Puna lots were cut up and sold starting in the 1950s by developers who made no improvements — something that would not be allowed today.
Putting infrastructure in subdivisions would be astronomically expensive and, officials worry, set a dangerous precedent of using public money to improve private property. (In the case of road-paving, it is illegal.)
Instead, the county has focused on improving the quality of life for Puna residents with projects outside the subdivisions. Work is set to begin soon on a 56-acre regional park in the district, new fire and police stations in Pahoa were recently completed and there are several planned improvements to the main state-owned thoroughfare to the Puna subdivisions.
County Councilman Zendo Kern, whose district includes Puna mauka, Keaau and Glenwood, said infrastructure and services are getting better, but much more slowly than Puna residents would like.
"We’re basically behind right now," he said. "We need to catch up with the last 10 years (of growth). I’m optimistic that it will get done."
Needed improvements range from beefing up emergency response services to providing a growing community with basic conveniences, like access to parks, he said.
But even as the county tries to catch up, more people are moving in.
"Nobody can stop somebody from buying these lots and building homes," Kern said. "Population growth is uncontrollable."
FROM 1958 TO 1973 large private developers (many of them politically connected) got permission from the county to subdivide some 52,500 lots in Puna — and about one-quarter of them now have houses on them, according to the 2011 Puna community plan.
"Clearly, we are living with a decision from four decades ago, but the question becomes, ‘How do we tackle it?’" said Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi.
He pointed out that while Puna residents say they aren’t getting enough for their tax dollars, those who live in other districts say they don’t see why their taxes should go to parcels sold at much cheaper rates precisely because they don’t have infrastructure improvements.
Some have instead suggested setting up an improvement district in the private subdivisions, essentially charging Puna residents a fee along with their property taxes that would go back into their communities. But that idea has not been formally floated, and it would likely be met with stiff opposition.
Patti Pinto, chairwoman of the Puna community development plan committee and a resident of the Fern Acres subdivision, said there is no doubt the infrastructure issues in Puna are difficult.
However, she said, there is also wide acknowledgement that something needs to be done — and soon.
"Because of the way the subdivisions were created … the developers were not required to provide any infrastructure," she said. "It’s 60 years later, and the county is beginning to realize that this is not a situation that can continue to be dealt with in the way it has been in the past."
THE PUNA SUBDIVISIONS do have private associations, which can collect fees to put toward infrastructure improvements, such as paving. But not everyone pays up. And even if people do, it’s not enough to cover the needs of a growing number of residents.
In Hawaiian Paradise Park the association is constantly fielding complaints from residents who feel their road should be the next for paving. A handful have gone as far as to call the Health Department about the dust kicked up by vehicles speeding on the substandard roads.
Conant, HPP’s association president, said no matter how much residents complain, there simply isn’t enough money to pave all the roads in the area.
The association’s annual fee is $262. As of today about 4,000 of the 8,935 lots in Paradise Park are occupied, and about two-thirds of the 137 miles of road in HPP are unpaved.
A bill introduced this legislative session would have allowed Hawaii County to send some fuel tax dollars to road maintenance in the private subdivisions.
Kenoi supported the measure, saying it was an innovative solution to "help maintain substandard private subdivision roads that are used by the public."
The bill, however, did not make it out of committee.
Amid the growing clamor to improve infrastructure in Puna, there is also a quiet push-back from some who believe improving the appeal of the subdivisions — by offering more conveniences — will only invite more growth. Those residents say they moved to Puna to live in a rural environment, off the grid and away from the city.
Paving roads and putting in water lines, they say, will only draw more residents and businesses.
In the Orchid Land Estates subdivision, that frustration is playing out with a battle over fee collections.
About 1,440 lots in the subdivision are "built out," and of those, about 60 percent of owners regularly pay association dues (which amount to $150 a year).
The rest of the lot owners, said Derek Shimizu, an Orchid Land Estates homeowner and association treasurer, just won’t.
On a recent afternoon, Shimizu drove a pickup truck at a snail’s pace along rocky, unpaved roads in Orchid Land Estates. He said the roads regularly flood and become impassable, despite lots of work from the association to try to maintain them.
If everyone paid in, he said, the subdivision could at least try to tackle the infrastructure challenges in a more long-term way.
AS IT IS, association members spend lots of time trucking in gravel to level roads. Shimizu alone spent $24,000 on a small bulldozer he uses to cart gravel to roads around the subdivision, then tamp it down.
"Everyone has a stake in this place," said Shimizu, who moved to Orchid Land Estates from Honolulu three years ago. "As we grow and as more people move in, the thought process in this subdivision is going to have to change."
Future growth is on the minds of many people in Puna.
Residents are worried in particular about what substandard infrastructure will mean over the next 10 years, when the population in Puna is projected to exceed 75,000.
While housing construction in the district slowed considerably during the economic downturn, there are already early signs it’s picking back up again. And house lots remain relatively cheap: Conant, of the HPP association, said an unimproved 1-acre lot in the subdivision can go for as little as $20,000 to upward of $90,000.
The homes in HPP range from temporary structures (tents and shipping containers) to humble, single-story family affairs to large, well-appointed properties on the ocean valued at more than $500,000.
"You have your locals and your snowbirds," said HPP resident Leimomi Shearer, who was at her home on a recent afternoon making laulau with friends.
As they worked, the friends laughed and joked about nothing in particular.
But on talk of infrastructure needs in HPP, the mood grew a little more serious. Everyone agreed that Puna needs help.
Shearer, 57, said her biggest concern is improving the roads for commuters, for safety and for emergency access. She lives on an unpaved road. She also lives in a cellphone dead spot.
"We have all these problems because the infrastructure is not stepped up," she said. "Just getting out of here is hard."
Approximate amount Hawaii County has spent to improve infrastructure in the Puna district, which is seeing rapid population growth. Residents say the improvements aren’t good enough. Here are some of the projects the county has funded in recent years:
$5.14 million: New playgrounds and other improvements at Isaac Hale Beach Park, and major improvements to the county park in Hawaiian Beaches
$488,000: Mountain View gym accessibility and parking improvements
$85,000: Shipman Park, Mountain View backstop replacements
$5.5 million: Cost of a major new park complex in Pahoa; planning is now underway
$23,000: Cost for coating the roof of the old Pahoa Fire Station, which was converted to a senior center mostly with donated labor
$5.1 million: New Pahoa police station
$5.3 million: New Pahoa fire station
$3.9 million: Major improvements to the Pahoa solid-waste transfer station
$578,000: Keaau Recycling and Transfer Station repairs
$1.52 million: Pahoa Aquatic Center improvements
Source: Hawaii County