The city, cracking down on unauthorized activities at an off-the-grid agriculture development in Kunia, recently issued a dozen citations to owners of the 854-acre project and expect to send out more in the coming weeks, including those for illegal residential use.
The 12 violation notices mailed Friday covered a range of zoning, electrical and grading infractions and were the first to result from a recent investigation that involved an aerial survey of the sprawling development and on-the-ground checks by a team of inspectors, city officials told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday.
One of the citations stemmed from the use of a large structure as a meeting place or temple for Buddhist services — the same violation that prompted the city to issue a citation in 2015. Uses at Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands are supposed to be restricted to agribusiness activities.
After the 2015 citation was issued, the building owner removed a large Buddhist statue, aerial banners and other things associated with the structure’s use as a temple, city officials said.
But the city learned during last month’s inspections that the statue had been moved back to the same building, placed next to an altar. A photo of the statue and altar was attached to last week’s violation notice.
One Kunia Loa farmer told the Star-Advertiser that a person who helped install the statue said it weighed roughly 17 tons.
The statue’s owner could not be reached Monday for comment.
George Atta, director of the Department of Planning and Permitting, which enforces the city’s zoning and building codes, said his agency is continuing its analysis of information gleaned from last month’s inspections and expects to issue additional citations in the next few weeks.
“There will be (ones) for residential use,” added Wally Carvalho, chief of the DPP’s Customer Service Office.
The crackdown follows on the heels of Star-Advertiser stories over the past two years exposing the proliferation of unregulated construction throughout Kunia Loa, which is on hilly, remote terrain about a mile off Kunia Road and several miles from the H-1 freeway.
Some of the structures are houses, built within the past two to three years despite a state law and the development’s own bylaws prohibiting residential use. The Star-Advertiser has talked to people who live in Kunia Loa but were unwilling to be quoted by name, not wanting to draw attention to the unauthorized dwellings.
A few Kunia Loa homeowners even advertised rooms or structures for rent on online vacation rental sites until the newspaper recently wrote about that practice, which is not permitted on land zoned Ag 1.
The difficulty in enforcing building laws at Kunia Loa has been attributed in part to a 2012 state law that exempts certain agricultural structures, such as tool sheds and storage facilities, from building code requirements if they are smaller than 1,000 square feet and constructed on a commercial farm or ranch outside the urban district.
The rural nature of the project — it has no street names, addresses or directional signs — also has added to the city’s enforcement challenges.
In addition, the legal structure of Kunia Loa — the entire development is owned by a nonprofit cooperative, and its members have proprietary leases for, but do not own, specific lots — has contributed to the muddied oversight picture.
City inspectors, for instance, cannot go into a structure without permission — even if they suspect it is being used as a residence.
Atta said violations related to use of a building are more difficult to prove than infractions dealing with the construction of one.
“Use is always harder to establish,” he said. “Structure is easy. You can see the structure — does it meet code or not? For use things, we have to gather additional evidence to prove that the use actually is occurring.”
Because farmers do not own individual lots within Kunia Loa, the city treats the project as one giant parcel, and the citations were issued in the name of the nonprofit cooperative — Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands — as landowner.
As such, the cooperative is responsible for correcting the violations, according to the city.
Christopher Goodwin, the attorney representing the cooperative, declined comment Monday, saying he had yet to see the citations.
One of the notices issued Friday was for use of a structure as a church, which is not allowed on Ag 1 land, according to city records.
The Star-Advertiser mentioned the church in an April story and included photos showing rows of pews in the open-air structure.
Other citations were for grading violations, installing electrical systems without a permit and for using land to store junk, old cars and other scrap items. One cited the cooperative for nearly 57,000 cubic yards of material graded in a particular area without a permit; it threatened fines of $1,000 a day if the property was not restored to its original condition or a permit not obtained by July 18.
Another citation included photos of a large power inverter and charger for a solar energy system, including more than a dozen energy cells, and ordered the removal of all wiring and associated equipment from the structure if a building permit is not obtained by July 18.
Rooftop solar panels have been installed on multiple structures at Kunia Loa.
The cooperative generally has been given 30 days to correct the violations. If the violations are not fixed, the city can start issuing fines. If the violations still persist, the city can issue liens on the entire development and ultimately try to have the property foreclosed.
City officials say Kunia Loa Ridge Farmlands has been cooperating with their investigation.