KALAPANA, Hawaii Island – Getting close to the Kilauea volcano’s lava flow is a surreal experience that requires journeying to a remote area of the Big Island — and then seeing the largest concentration of commercial activity in lower Puna.
Each day, tourists seeking an up-close experience unavailable most other places on Earth drive within a couple of miles of the end of Highway 130, where previously molten rock has buried the pavement.
Here they find a dozen or so roadside vendors trying to eke out livings where entrepreneurial opportunity presents itself. Most offer bicycle rentals, providing lava-seekers an easier and faster alternative to walking from the public parking area more than 2 miles over a gravel road to reach Hawaii County’s designated lava-viewing site.
“I live here in Kalapana. There’s not a lot of work,” said Tyler Hamm, who said his previous tree service job involved getting “rained on” by little fire ants.
Last May he took steady employment with one of the rental businesses. On a recent afternoon, Hamm’s customers included two friends from Sweden, a Colorado couple and a group of seven schoolchildren who spoke Hawaiian.
“I think this is a really good feature,” Colorado visitor Jim Clark said upon returning from a ride with his wife, each having paid $20 for a bike, backpack, lock, water and snack. “This is good for the tourists.”
It’s also been good for those needing a paycheck.
“This was definitely a blessing when I came into this (job) down here,” said Hamm.
But he may not make it to his one-year anniversary next month.
That’s because the vendors operate on a right of way belonging to Hawaii County, which in mid-April told them they have until July 1 to secure new sites — and the required government approvals to use them commercially — or face fines and jail time.
“It’s definitely a safety issue,” Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno told about 75 people who packed a Pahoa venue Wednesday for a two-hour community meeting. Topics included not only the venders’ looming eviction, but also a county plan to move the viewing site parking area to the point where the gravel road becomes impassable — which would make the bike rentals unnecessary.
Complaints about speeding motorists, confrontations involving vendors and/or their customers, and allegations of businesses operating without required tax licenses have been sent to Mayor Harry Kim’s office, said Managing Director Wil Okabe, who also attended the community meeting.
“When you have these kinds of concerns, the mayor’s office has to address it,” Okabe said.
Police Capt. Samuel Jelsma, the Puna District commander, echoed that sentiment.
“It wasn’t an issue,” Jelsma told the audience, when the vending was “small time.” But with more cars, disputes and issues with residents, police will be enforcing the law prohibiting roadside vending come July 1, he said.
“What are we supposed to do, not make any money?” said Cassie Wooldridge, a disabled employee of another bike rental business that’s already suffering since the start of the year when the lava flow stopped reaching the ocean, reducing its normally spectacular display to distant glows that remain impressive at night. That may be temporary, but it’s caused the number of visitors to plummet for now.
Wooldridge told Civil Beat before the meeting she also opposes the county’s plan to move the parking area closer to the lava flow, which will increase traffic in front of her residence and the homes of her neighbors.
“It’s my property. I want it back,” Wooldridge said. “I came out here so that I can have the privacy that I want.”
That was the most common complaint raised during the public hearing.
“You’re not solving any problems. You’re creating new problems,” one resident shouted from the crowd.
Several area residents complained about the prospect of breathing dust from the gravel road, visitors parking on their property or being awakened by rowdy hikers returning from nighttime treks to the flow’s edge.
“You’re going to send them right by our subdivision there,” said Scott Collamore, who runs a hiking business and has lived on his property since 1986.
He urged county administrators to add a shuttle service from the current parking area “and let us companies work again.”
Paving the two-lane road would cost an estimated $900,000, said Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Kim, who did not attend the meeting.
Around an hour into the meeting, audience comments grew heated.
“Stop shutting us down. Listen!” one person demanded.
“If this is not going to work, then we’re going to have to end the meeting,” Okabe said before regaining order.
Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles complained to the audience that Kim’s office failed to contact her about the vending issue or the public meeting. She then accused the administration of taking a “heavy-handed approach of telling us what’s going to happen rather than asking us” what we want.
Ruggles called for a follow-up meeting and a collaborative approach.
Administrators didn’t commit to that, or actively embrace an offer from Floyd Quihano, who owns land nearby.
“I will donate that land,” Quihano told the crowd, which responded with loud applause.
Quihano later told Civil Beat that he’d give the county “whatever it takes” from the 66 acres he owns in Kalapana. He then added publicly that if the county would allow him to charge people to park on the land, “I will gladly fix the road” with the collected fees.
That and other commercial activity would require various government approvals outlined in a two-sided information sheet offered at the meeting.
Besides general excise tax licenses, building permits and food permits for vendors selling lunches, the biggest roadblock could be county land-use approvals.
Kalapana is zoned for agriculture, with the closest commercial properties about 10 miles away in Pahoa, Deputy Planning Director Daryn Arai told the audience. The county cannot “in good conscience” encourage more density in the area due to its active lava, he said.
Still, vendors could apply for a special-use permit authorizing vending on ag land. That process requires a public hearing and takes at least 90 days, Arai said.
That doesn’t leave enough time before the county’s relocation deadline. Violations would be a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both, officials said.
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