An off-the-grid agriculture development in West Oahu that has been under fire for unregulated construction — including a church, a business and apparent homes — can add one more category to its list of questionable structures: inexpensive, rustic vacation cabins.
Several vacation rentals are being advertised at Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands, with the operators using websites such as Airbnb to solicit customers interested in staying on property with stunning views of Pearl Harbor and beyond, according to a Honolulu Star-Advertiser review of the websites.
The advertised prices for the cabins and tents last week ranged from $24 to $69 a night.
The rentals in some cases have been operating for months despite zoning laws that restrict activities in the 854-acre development to agribusiness only. State law and the Kunia Loa bylaws also prohibit residential use.
The revelation of vacation rentals is the latest controversy to taint the sprawling project and underscores the lax oversight and enforcement challenges that have contributed to Kunia Loa’s growing reputation as a place where almost anything goes.
Dozens of houselike structures have been built within the development, and people live in some of them despite the residential prohibition.
A Buddhist temple operated there for months. A doggy day care business that advertises extended stays recently celebrated its first anniversary. A church organization has erected an open-air structure with rows of pews, and farmers say services are held there regularly.
And now visitors are being invited to camp at the privately owned development.
The online vacation rental ads reviewed by the Star-Advertiser touted indoor or outdoor bathroom facilities, propane or solar-powered appliances and, in one case, access to a full kitchen. Photos from the websites showed several structures with simple but nicely decorated interiors, including one with a refrigerator, artwork on the walls and regular furnishings, including a bed.
“This is ridiculous,” Sen. Laura Thielen (D, Hawaii Kai-Waimanalo-Kailua), said of the proliferation of houselike structures and the questionable activities that have been highlighted in Star-Advertiser coverage over the past two years. Thielen used to run the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Testing legal limits
Kunia Loa, which launched in 2010 as a way to get farmers onto small parcels, is about a mile off Kunia Road, tucked into the nearby foothills, and is unconnected to Oahu’s power, water, sewer and telephone grids.
While some Kunia Loa farmers are following the rules and running legitimate agricultural operations, others seem to be testing the boundaries of what is allowed, according to the project’s proponents and critics.
And the city, which oversees building and zoning laws, largely has been unable to overcome the enforcement challenges that this unusual project presents, including the effects of a 2012 state law that exempts certain agricultural structures from building code requirements.
That law, which the city opposed and wants changed, has led to a proliferation of unregulated construction at Kunia Loa, though some critics say the city is applying the statute too broadly.
George Atta, director of the city Department of Planning and Permitting, acknowledged that vacation rentals at Kunia Loa would be illegal.
But he agreed with the Star-Advertiser’s assessment that the city can do little about the ads or certain other activities that appear to be illegal. That assessment was based on the city’s position that unless it devotes an inordinate amount of resources to investigations, such as conducting undercover operations to gather evidence, or directly witnesses the illegal activities, it has few options.
“At the current time, that is the situation,” Atta told the newspaper.
But he also said the city is looking into adding additional enforcement tools that he would not disclose and is pushing for a pending bill before the City Council that would allow his department to issue citations solely on the basis of an advertisement by an unauthorized vacation rental operator.
While Atta said his staff is doing the best it can with limited resources and enforcement tools that are insufficient, he noted that Mayor Kirk Caldwell is frustrated about what’s happening at Kunia Loa. “He looks at these things and says something’s wrong that this activity continues,” Atta said.
The city is not the only entity that has a hand in oversight there.
Kunia Loa, for instance, is overseen by an association of owners of a nonprofit that owns the 854 acres as a cooperative, not as a condominium property regime as the city previously said. The individual owners purchased membership interests in the nonprofit and have proprietary leases for specific parcels. The association is charged with enforcing the development’s rules, which restrict activities to agricultural-related operations and specifically prohibit residential use.
Yet some Kunia Loa lessees say the rules are being broken on a regular basis with no consequences, citing the vacation rentals as the most recent example.
Christopher Shea Goodwin, the association’s attorney, issued this statement to the Star-Advertiser: “Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands has cooperated and will continue to cooperate with government officials in connection with their investigation of alleged violations of applicable laws and ordinances at the project. Further, KLRF’s board of directors investigates all alleged covenant violations, and if warranted, takes appropriate enforcement actions to the extent permitted under the project’s governing documents.”
The Honolulu Fire Department also has a hand in oversight. It is responsible for inspecting all nonresidential buildings on Oahu for potential fire code violations. For low-risk ones, such as agricultural structures, it tries to conduct inspections at least once every five years.
But the agency needs the owner or a representative to cooperate and accompany the department on each of the individual lot inspections, according to Terry Seelig, Honolulu Fire Department battalion chief. Because HFD hasn’t had success in getting such access and therefore has yet to inspect any Kunia Loa buildings, the agency intends to work with the association management to make that happen, he said.
“We will get it done,” Seelig added. “It’s just a matter of when and how hard it’s made for us.”
Another agency that has a jurisdictional link to Kunia Loa is the state Department of Health.
Two years ago, it received an anonymous complaint alleging illegal cesspools at Kunia Loa. The department said it sent an inspector but couldn’t access the 18 lots that it intended to check.
Attempts to gain access through the developer, its attorney and Goodwin were unsuccessful, according to the Health Department.
Independent of that action, the department in May 2015 received a request from the city for assistance in investigating improper wastewater discharge at Kunia Loa, and the state agreed to a joint inspection, according to Janice Okubo, a Health Department spokeswoman, and the city.
But as of last week, the department had not heard back from the city on when the inspection would be scheduled, Okubo said in an email.
She said her agency is concerned about alleged illegal cesspools and improper wastewater discharge at Kunia Loa. And even though the department can go to court to seek access if owners don’t cooperate, the state prefers to work with the city to pursue an investigation, she said.
Asked about the inspection delay, Atta on Friday said there apparently was a miscommunication. He said the city had been awaiting information from the Health Department on whether that agency had issued any permits for independent wastewater systems at Kunia Loa.
Hidden from view
Part of the difficulty in enforcing regulations at Kunia Loa is the absence of any street names, addresses, lot-number markings or directional signs.
And if an owner is exempt from obtaining a permit to build a structure, the city’s implicit right to enter the property doesn’t apply, creating a major enforcement obstacle in gathering evidence, according to Atta.
He also said the people who appear to be flouting the rules are smart and are trying to stay one step ahead of authorities. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Atta said. “We obviously need a change in law or more enforcement tools.”
As if to underscore that notion, two Airbnb ads for Kunia Loa cabin rentals were removed from that website Friday, the day after the Star-Advertiser started making inquiries about the properties.
With one exception, none of the ads reviewed by the newspaper listed Kunia Loa as locations, though the maps that accompanied them showed the rentals were within the project and the property descriptions could only apply to that development.
One camp operator, who only identified himself as Jerry on the vacation rental sites, told the Star-Advertiser in an email that his 1-acre farm was not in Kunia Loa. Yet his TripAdvisor ad listed Kunia Loa as the location, and the accompanying map pinpointed a site within the project. He did not respond to a follow-up email.
Jerry advertised use of a tent, queen-sized mattress and access to a full kitchen and bathroom for $25 a night.
Like many of the rental customers who posted comments online, a woman who stayed at a Kunia Loa cabin gushed about the stunning views from the property. She also lauded one of the cabin operators, inadvertently disclosing an apparent violation of the no-residence rule.
“Bonnie lives right next door,” Galyn wrote on the Airbnb site.
Her comments, along with the rest of the cabin ad, no longer can be found at Airbnb.