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Honolulu Council considering urging city to acquire problem properties

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The Honolulu City Council, during a committee meeting today, will consider three resolutions that would urge the city administration to acquire private properties, two of which have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for building violations.

The total fine issued by the Department of Planning and Permitting against a 13-acre property at 54-406 Kamehameha Highway in Hauula as of Monday was $409,500.

The violations included having several unpermitted structures, conducting unpermitted grading and storing construction materials on agricultural land.

According to the resolution that Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi introduced urging the city to acquire the property, the state Department of Health also fined the property owner $17,000 for illegally dumping construction materials into protected wetland that also exists on the property.

“This one is just so egregious that the behaviors have escalated instead of (implementing) any corrective action that it got to this level,” she said.

“Especially because this is a protected wetland.”

The property is on property zoned for agricultural use, but the property owner, Hopoate Taufa, has not been adhering to the permitted use.

However, he said he was being singled out by the city and that he had an agricultural exemption for the land.

“I’ve been trying to reach the City Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi. … I called her to see if they can come to the property so they can see for themselves instead of just listening to somebody who complained,” Taufa said.

“Nobody returned my call because they just want me to be the bad guy to the city.”

Tsuneyoshi said her office reached out to Taufa and did not receive a response and that he attended a neighborhood board meeting about his property.

Taufa said he’s been trying to work with DPP to fix the violations but that it has declined to give him a permit that he applied for after hiring an architect to correct some of the issues on his land.

The Council already passed a resolution in January urging DPP to address the outstanding violations on the property, but Tsune­yoshi did not think that it would be enough at this point.

“This is really about also building confidence within the community, and letting the communities know that when they are bringing issues to the attention of the city and the Department of Planning and Permitting that we are going to do whatever it takes to ensure that the communities and the land and the water are protected,” Tsuneyoshi said.

“Hopefully, it isn’t seen as coming after a property owner. … It was hopeful that we could have come to a resolution where he would have complied with all that’s been told to him to do, but unfortunately, after five years that wasn’t the case.”

If the resolution passes and the city does decide to acquire the property using eminent domain — a power the government has to take property for public use in exchange for monetary compensation — Tsuneyoshi said the city could use money from the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund.

“I think the issues on this parcel is aligned to what Clean Water and Natural Lands funds were set up for,” she said.

“The level to which the land has been abused and degraded, it’s just going to take a lot of rehabilitation to get it back to what it’s supposed to be.”

Tsuneyoshi also introduced a bill that would not allow DPP to grant more permits to properties that have an excessive amount of building violations.

“This is just providing DPP with another tool to be able to address issues that the community has brought forward,” she said.

Another resolution, introduced by Council members Calvin Say and Carol Fuku­naga, similarly urged the city to acquire a property at 1421 Pensacola St. in Makiki due to health and safety concerns. The property has accrued over $318,000 in city fines due to neglect, which has included severe hoarding. In 2018 the city removed 45 tons of garbage from the property, which cost $13,120. However, even after the trash removal, it began to again accumulate, and in 2020 two fires broke out on the property.

“The question would be more about the health and safety of the neighborhood,” Say said.

“Having it there for now over five years, 10 years, is really telling you something that the private landowner does not care about the surrounding community.”

The city can foreclose on a property, but would need to go to court to do so. The only way it can obtain a property would be through eminent domain, which would force the city to purchase the land from the owner. However, a bill going through the state Legislature might change that. The bill is part of Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s legislative package, and it would authorize counties to adopt ordinances to give them the power to sell private property after all notices and proceedings are exhausted, and use those revenues to pay unpaid civil fines related to that property.

Council member Andria Tupola also introduced a resolution for the city to obtain portions of Paakea Road that it does not currently own, particularly the part that connects Hakimo Road to Lualualei Naval Road.

Tupola’s policy director, Braedon Wilkerson, said that this is in line with the Waianae Coast Emergency Access Road plan.

“We’re trying to have the city acquire the entire segment of road in keeping with the emergency plan, basically to have it all be brought up to city standard because (some of) it’s private and some of it’s public,” he said. “The city would acquire all segments of it and then invest in it, to bring it up to city standards so that it could be permanently opened.”

All three resolutions regarding acquiring properties will be considered at today’s Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee meeting at 1 p.m. If they pass out of the committee with majority votes, they will be heard in front of the full Council.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the city could not foreclose on a property. However, the city can foreclose on a property through a court proceeding. A bill going through the state legislature would allow counties to foreclose on a property administratively.
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