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Ban on new construction in lava zones proposed

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People hoping to see something of the Puna volcanic eruption stop in the parking lot of Sacred Heart Church Pahoa to get a glimpse of the eruption’s red glow in the sky on Friday.

State Sen. Lorraine Inouye is proposing that Hawaii County officials prohibit new construction on thousands of lots in the two highest risk lava inundation zones to try to prevent another disaster on the scale of the ongoing May 3 eruption of Kilauea Volcano.

That proposal by Inouye, who was mayor of the island from 1990 to 1992, is certain to be controversial. The county and state authorized subdivisions decades ago on land in the highest risk area of Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone, including Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens. Thousands bought land there believing they would be allowed to build.

Today, swaths of those subdivisions along with nearby Vacationland and much of Kapoho have been wiped out in the ongoing eruption, which so far has destroyed 671 homes.

Given the destruction by the current eruption, “I think that the county itself needs to be made clear that we will not allow any more buildings in zones 1 and 2,” Inouye said in a candidate forum in Hilo last week.

Inouye said lawmakers and others are considering creating a new subdivision in a less risky area where residents can be relocated, and other political leaders are thinking along somewhat similar lines.

At another candidate forum earlier this month in Kona, Gov. David Ige also said he does not believe construction of new homes or businesses should be allowed in the highest risk lava zone, which is known as lava zone 1.

“The risk involved is too great,” he said. “They would have tremendous challenges, they would not have access to any insurance as a practical reality, and we just shouldn’t be building new facilities or new residences on lava zone 1.”

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hana­busa, who is challenging Ige in the Democratic primary and attended the same Kona forum, described the matter as a “home rule issue,” but said she also does not support additional building in lava zone 1.

Banning further development in lava zones 1 or 2 is controversial in large part because of the enormous number of subdivision lots created in those zones over the years.

Mayor Harry Kim acknowledged allowing continued development in zones 1 and 2 is setting up the next lava disaster, and “for us, as government, not to really review future development, to me, is irresponsible.”

He said there should be no more rezoning of properties in zone 1 to higher densities. As for any proposed building ban in zones 1 or 2, “that’s for a real open discussion,” he said. “We’ve got to look at everything.”

The subdivisions that are now at risk or being destroyed were already established when scientists and the federal government, produced the maps that designated the boundaries of the highest risk zones, he said. People did not understand the hazards, Kim said.

Lava zone 1 covers the rift line for Kilauea where lava can erupt to the surface, and stretches from the Pahala area to Kapoho Point in Puna, Kim said. It includes Leilani Estates, which had more than 2,200 lots before the lava started covering the land there, and 130 lots in Lanipuna Gardens. Lanipuna has been almost entirely destroyed.

Kapoho Beach Lots and Vacationland, which were also wiped out by the ongoing Kilauea flow, were in lava zones 1 and 2, and had a combined total of nearly 500 lots. Much of the sprawling subdivision of Hawaiian Ocean View Estates in Kau — which has more than 11,000 lots — is also in zone 1, he noted.

Lava zone 2 is far more expansive. In Puna, zone 2 includes Pahoa itself, a growing area where new county facilities have been built and a new shopping center is under construction. And that is just for starters.

“I do think people are going to be a little taken aback when they realize South Kona — and I do mean most of South Kona all the way down to the ocean — and almost the entire southwest part of the island which is all of Kau is zone 1 or 2,” Kim said. “What are you saying? No building at that area? I think you’re going to have South Kona yell and scream at you.”

Nanawale Estates, which is about a mile from the ongoing eruption, has more than 3,400 lots and sits in lava zone 2. Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Shores, which have more than 3,000 lots, are also in zone 2.

Other zone 2 subdivisions in the area include Puna Beach Palisades with about 150 lots; Waawaa with nearly 180 lots; and Kalapana Seaview Estates with nearly 1,000 lots.

Longtime Puna Resident Jon Olson, whose home in Leilani Estates was destroyed by the May 3 flow, estimates there are 60,000 to 80,000 separate parcels in lava zones 1 and 2. The state allowed and the county permitted the subdivisions that created all of those parcels, and the owners and residents now have vested property rights, he said.

“The gods giveth, the gods taketh away, but are the gods willing to pay for it?” Olson asked. “They sold all these people these lots, and they paid taxes on them for 60 years, and you’re just going to do what? Explain to me the process by which these people recoup their investment.”

Olson, 73, said the government can either gradually change the land uses in the high-risk lava zones through a voluntary relocation program, or can try to condemn land to force people out — and trigger a deluge of litigation.

Even knowing the risks, Olson said he plans to build a new home for himself on a vacant lot in Nanawale Estates — in lava zone 2. His niece bought the lot for $2,200, he said.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, (D-Puna), said a ban on new construction in high-risk lava zones would require that property owners be compensated for the development rights they would lose. “That might be appropriate, and it might be a mechanism to get people money to go elsewhere. It’s useful for discussion,” Ruderman said.

“I think that would be very, very unpopular to do,” he said. “I also think it’s premature to decide that, because we have to see what’s going to happen with the eruption before we can really know what’s the best way to move forward. It would also be tremendously unpopular. I mean, can you imagine the outcry?”

Ruderman has proposed that a new subdivision be developed on state land in the less risky lava zone 3 in Puna between the existing subdivisions of Hawaiian Beaches and Hawaiian Paradise Park. He hopes that offering lots there to evacuees will help convince them to not go back to Leilani or other higher-risk areas.

Meanwhile, County spokeswoman Janet Snyder said the county is already under pressure to reopen roads into the eruption area so residents can return to their homes, but repairing the damage done by the lava will cost “tens of millions of dollars.”

Kim told his staff that “there will be no attempt to clear or fix the government roads until there is a minimum of six months of inactivity by the lava,” Snyder said. “Obviously, that’s to ensure that the roads don’t get covered up again.”

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