Editor’s Note: This is the last in a three-part series on Japanese real estate investor Genshiro Kawamoto and the controversy he’s generating along Kahala Avenue.

Part 1: Land Barren: Japanese Billionaire Is Raising Eyebrows, Razing Houses

Part 2: Land Barren: Who is Genshiro Kawamoto?

Honolulu city officials have repeatedly fined Kahala’s most famous real estate investor for violations at his Kahala Avenue properties.

Since 2005, the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting has charged Genshiro Kawamoto 32 times in connection with 20 of his Kahala properties. The city has also sent Kawamoto 56 notices of violation, which come before a fine is issued. A DPP spokesman said Kawamoto has corrected all of the violations, and paid $38,000 in fines, including $3,000 within the last few weeks.

DPP spokesman Curtis Lum couldn’t say whether Kawamoto’s record of violations is higher than others.

“Historically, we have had numerous single property owners who have accumulated more fines than what has been assessed to Mr. Kawamoto in total. DPP does not characterize any property owner, or compare one with another,” Lum said.

Most of the violations — 27 of them — were for overgrowth and litter. But he also was fined for grubbing and grading without a permit, collapsed fences overhanging into the shoreline setback area without a variance, pool filled with litter, layers of concrete bricks stockpiled within the shoreline setback area without a variance, seawall construction without a variance, a broken sprinkler system, cylindrical footings deposited and exposed in the shoreline setback area, fence constructed in the setback area without a variance, and a chainlink fence erected without a permit.

The record of violations paints a sharp picture of a property owner who is letting his properties fall into disrepair and who doesn’t seem to care much about what that’s doing to the neighborhood.

And the neighbors would argue neither does the city. The $38,000 in fines is a small price to pay for a billionaire repeat offender.

Kawamoto’s properties remain such eyesores that longtime Kahala residents worry their property values are suffering. They accuse the city of ignoring their concerns and letting Kawamoto get away with purposely blighting the neighborhood by just paying fines over and over.

On Kahala Avenue alone, city records show he owns at least 27 properties. One house is on a lot next to the public walkway down to Hunakai Beach. On a February visit to the site, there were flowers — many still in their plastic pots — lining the front yard. A green garden hose snaked across an overgrown tennis court, which was littered with tree branches, a rubber tire and crumbling cinderblocks.

The wall separating the beach access path from the Kawamoto property was spray-painted with blue, red and green graffiti, as was the back of the house itself. Most of the windows were boarded up, some were tagged with white spray paint, and one had a jagged break.

In the back yard, which faces the ocean, the pool was filled with mossy rocks and dirt. Down the street, another one of Kawamoto’s houses had an overgrown front yard, weeds and waist-high grass. Yet another property had a massive bramble of bougainvillea vines tangled in front of a garage door, and browned palm fronds piled across a walkway. The empty house was visible through the window on the front door, and a pair of brown beer bottles was discarded in the unkempt grass.

At another Kawamoto house, someone had wedged a business card for a landscaping company partway into the front door.

One of those properties used to belong to Stanton Johnston. When Johnston’s mother, Cecily, died in 2008, Kawamoto paid $22 million for it. It was an offer Johnston says he couldn’t refuse for financial reasons (though much of that sale price went to taxes, and to charities as stipulated by Cecily in her will).

Johnston, now 66, remembers growing up in that Kahala Avenue house when there were “pig farms across the street, fresh vegetables growing in parcels and cock fights on the weekend.” He says the Johnstons worked hard, supported the community and didn’t have a lot of wealth — certainly nothing approaching Kawamoto’s.

“I hated to sell to him but he put us between a rock and a hard place,” Johnston said. “He bought all the property around us, except the Rafaels [who still live next to the old Johnston property]. It was a real game for him. I was face to face with the guy. It was unnerving. In the meeting with him, face-to face, I said, ‘Why do you want it anyway?’ He said he is going to sell it to the Chinese. I think maybe that’s his long-term idea, to sell it all to the Chinese.”

Why Isn’t The Government Doing More?

Kahala residents like Rich Turbin and Georg and Rosie Rafael, Johnston’s former neighbors, are furious that more hasn’t been done about Kawamoto’s properties. Georg Rafael, a hotelier who first moved to Oahu about 40 years ago, says he is disappointed that Kawamoto is able to make Kahala residents look like “fools.”

Turbin calls it “humiliating,” and “bad for the city.”

“To be frank, I think that the city — the City Council and the city administration — has been gutless, totally gutless,” said Turbin, who ran unsuccessfully for the District 4 City Council seat that Stanley Chang won in 2010. “It is part and parcel about what’s wrong with government today and society today, and of course it’s one of the major reasons I ran for political office myself. I think we have gutless city officials plain and simple.”

In the legislative session that just ended, the Hawaii Legislature considered House Bill 2852, which would have made property owners personally liable for “a property nuisance on residential property that causes injury or damage to the person or property of another person.”

Chang testified in strong support of that bill, which ultimately stalled in committee.

A staffer in Chang’s office says they track Kawamoto’s city permitting activities each month, and provide updates at neighborhood board meetings. In some cases, Chang has directly contacted DPP to convey constituents’ concerns about Kawamoto’s properties.

In January, Chang asked the department whether Kawamoto had permits for the statues on his property. But because Kawamoto’s statues are not part of a commercial museum — although there are persistent rumors that he’s planning to open one — DPP said that he doesn’t actually need any permits.

“Mr. Kawamoto responded by saying that the statues are his personal and private artwork. The artwork is within his home and on the grounds of his properties,” wrote DPP Director David Tanoue in a February letter to Chang. “Mr. Kawamoto also indicated that he had no plans to create a museum or park-like setting that will be open to the public. He reiterated that everything in his home and the surrounding grounds is his personal artwork. Having no reason to, the DPP building inspector, therefore, took no further action.”

By that point, Kawamoto had already obtained a permit to knock down one of his more recently acquired houses, the one across the street from the Rafaels.

“Why would the city let him do this?” Georg asked. He wonders if the city couldn’t withhold a demolition permit from someone with outstanding fines to pay.

Here’s how Lum, the DPP spokesman, explained it to Civil Beat: “A person’s history of multiple violations is not taken into consideration when issuing a construction or demolition permit. Such permits are non-discretionary, thus are issued when the applicant has met all code requirements.”

But Turbin says he believes the city is treating Kawamoto with “kid gloves.” He believes government officials are “too chicken” to sue Kawamoto because they worry about political perception, and the idea that someone will see the move as racially motivated because he’s Japanese.

“Just because the city government washes its hands of responsibility to do something, why are the local residents supposed to go through the financial and the emotional hell of suing a megabillionaire?” Turbin said.

Dropping Property Values?

Turbin and other residents fear that the way Kawamoto is letting his properties decline will bring down their own values, too. Turbin goes so far as to accuse Kawamoto of intentionally “blockbusting” — which he says is purposely blighting an area to drive property values down so Kawamoto can pick them up for cheap.

Indeed, real estate records show that the assessed value of Georg and Rosie Rafael’s Kahala Avenue home, which is surrounded by Kawamoto properties, has gone down over a five-year period. But it’s possible other factors played a role. The assessed value of two other properties nearby, neither owned by Kawamoto, have also dropped over a five-year period.

But luxury-property realtor Cedric Choi, who handles many of Kawamoto’s deals, says just the opposite is true. He says the recent purchases in Kahala have actually raised values.

Another Oahu realtor, Michael Bates of i Properties Hawaii, says Kawamoto may be an unusual buyer but that the properties are his to do with as he wishes.

“Some people are unhappy about Kawamoto’s presence in Hawaii,” Bates told Civil Beat in an email. “I think he has the right to do what he wants with his properties, as long as he stays within the law.”

That was little comfort to Johnston when he went to see the trees on his former property earlier this month. It was Mother’s Day, and Johnston said Cecily had loved those trees. He says one of them, planted on the makai side of the yard, was a gift from Ernest Hemingway, who brought it to Oahu from Madagascar in a coffee pot in the days before agricultural regulations would have forbidden it.

But the one tree Stanton came to see was a palm that his mother had planted long ago with the help of Grace Guslander, the former manager of the legendary Coco Palms resort on Kauai, former Kamehameha Schools Principal Gladys Kamakakuokalani Ainoa Brandt and Rev. Charles Kekumano, who then blessed the coconut tree. Cecily Johnston, Guslander, Brandt and Kekumano have all since passed away but their tree lived on, growing to at least 15 feet tall.

Stanton Johnston says a friend had recently called him, worried that Kawamoto might remove the tree. He had been cutting down other trees on the property. Already, Johnston says, Kawamoto had demolished his childhood home after promising he wouldn’t do that when he was talking the family into selling.

“On Mother’s Day, I went down to the property because I used to put some flowers around this very special tree,” Johnston said this week. He contacted Civil Beat after reading previous installments in this series.

“When my mom passed away, we also put her ashes around the tree. It was a very special tree. It had been blessed. There was a plaque on it. I go down there, and the tree is cut down. I was just in tears.”


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