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The mid-April deluge that damaged hundreds of homes and halted tourism on the farthest reaches of Kauai’s North Shore has revived a red-hot debate over whether vacation rentals should be allowed to operate in hazardous zones.
Last week Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho enacted an emergency rule to prohibit transient vacation rental homes from operating in Wainiha and Haena until May 31. Ravaged by a dozen landslides, the only access road into these isolated communities remains closed to nonresidents.
The temporary legislation will very likely be extended well into the summer, Carvalho said. But county planners say the future of some of the affected vacation rentals could remain at risk even after the moratorium is lifted.
Vulnerable to natural disasters, a single road links the communities of Hanalei, Wainiha and Haena to the rest of the island. This 8-mile stretch of Kuhio Highway is narrow, it traverses a series of damaged or structurally deficient one-lane bridges and it hugs steep sea cliffs that are crumbling under threat of erosion.
During a tsunami or flood, the only passage to high ground is over a bridge that shuts down to traffic when the river it crosses becomes swollen.
Anxieties about the reliability of this lone evacuation route prompted Kauai County in 2008 to prohibit vacation rentals from the Hanalei Bridge to Kuhio Highway’s famous finish line where the road meets the sea at Kee Beach.
State law bars counties from amortizing nonconforming vacation rentals, even in areas with limited evacuation infrastructure. As such, a grandfather clause allows 203 transient vacation rentals in these communities to operate legally.
“We’re not keeping people safe, not by any stretch,” — Makaala Kaaumoana
Here’s the catch: The nonconforming use certificates that legalize these vacation rentals are subject to annual renewal. As part of this process, owners or operators must demonstrate that their property has been rented at least once in the year prior.
Some vacation rentals battered by the flood will likely lose their certificate to operate because they won’t be able to rebuild in time, said Kaaina Hull, deputy planning director for Kauai County.
Michael Schmidt, principal broker at Coldwell Banker Bali Hai Realty in Hanalei, said some of the company’s rental houses were damaged by the floodwaters, but none of that damage was structural.
Bali Hai doesn’t expect to lose any of its North Shore listings. But Schmidt said he understands why some community members are concerned about the persistence of vacation rentals in these isolated communities.
“If a tsunami threat occurs and the highway is choked with tourists trying to get out, how do the locals get out?” Schmidt said. “There’s where the issue is.”
In the immediate aftermath of the mid-April flood, at least 207 of the 475 people helicoptered out of Wainiha and Haena were visitors, according to a county survey.
Many of the evacuees left the survey blank. As such, Hull said he suspects that most of the evacuees were visitors.
Makaala Kaaumoana, executive director of the nonprofit Hanalei Watershed Hui, said it’s unsettling that tourists have continued to be invited to rent accommodations in hazardous zones.
“We’re not keeping people safe, not by any stretch,” Kaaumoana said. “If I was a tourist and I didn’t know that the house I was staying in for a lot of money was in a tsunami zone and we had a tsunami and I got hurt or I couldn’t get out, you betcha that I’d be thinking about litigation.”
Kauai County has lobbied for amortization powers at the state Capitol during the last three legislative sessions. Last month a proposal died that would have authorized local governments to adopt ordinances to phase out vacation rentals.
In a 2014 survey, more than 77 percent of residents in this area said they felt prepared for a natural disaster. But only 54 percent said they felt that the community, as a whole, is prepared for disaster. This is due in large part to the strain that an unprepared visitor population may place on residents.
Kaaumoana said even those who evacuated the area quickly last month placed an additional strain on locals.
“All the local people who were losing their homes and trying to take care of their animals also had to take care of these tourists who were in the wrong place, in my opinion,” Kaaumoana said. “It’s one thing if you are of a place. You grew up there. Our Haena families, for example, they’re fine. Yes, they had losses. Yes, they have a mess to clean up. But they have the right, I think, to just be able to take care of themselves.
“When you invite tourists into these areas, on the other hand, and a flood like this one happens, they don’t have any idea what they’re up against. They don’t have the capacity to recover.”
To see how visitor unpreparedness can propagate chaos, one only has to look back to March 2012 when a major flood closed Hanalei’s single-lane bridge. Evacuation difficulties caused tourists to become trapped for days in their rental cars without food, water, shelter or bathroom facilities, according to a description of the event in the 2014 Hanalei to Haena Community Disaster Resilience Plan. Some residents who cared for these stranded travelers ran out of food and supplies for themselves.
Criticisms of vacation rentals in these communities extend beyond disaster evacuation worries. Residents also complain that vacation rentals contribute to a local housing shortage and invite more traffic than the area’s vulnerable coastal roads, bridges, parking lots and beaches can handle.
Illegal vacation rentals exacerbate these problems. Since 2015, the county has issued 235 zoning violation and compliance notices to operators of illegal vacation rentals in the Hanalei, Wainiha and Haena area, Hull said.
Of those, 155 have shut down. Others are appealing the county’s violation notices in contested case hearings.
“There have been several notices of violations submitted for this area,” Hull said. “In fact, we did shut one down right before the flood and that (vacation rental) was ultimately swept away in the flood.”
When an overnight storm on April 14 and 15 produced the most rainfall recorded during a 24-hour period in U.S. history, a devastating flood unleashed landslides, dissolved roads into massive sinkholes and damaged nearly 350 homes on Kauai.
Schmidt, the principal broker at Bali Hai Realty, said most of the company’s vacation-home renters were airlifted out of the isolated area within three days of the deluge.
“People got panicky,” said Schmidt, who lives in Haena. “The biggest thing was the road shut down and people felt trapped. We had power but no internet, and so then all of a sudden fear overwhelmed most of the visitors because they couldn’t communicate.”
Those who evacuated were allowed to bring one bag with them. This left Schmidt and other realty agents with the task of retrieving any excess luggage from rental homes. After wrapping the left-behind suitcases in garbage bags, the agents transported the bags by boat to the other side of the road closure. Schmidt said he also disposed of household garbage and perishable food items left in refrigerators.
Bali Hai Realty advises renters about any flood and tsunami risks in their contract, Schmidt said. Each rental property has a handbook with information about disaster safety and evacuation plans, he said.
About 10 percent of Bali Hai’s guests declined to evacuate, choosing instead to enjoy the empty beaches and solitude.
“For the city slickers, they were kind of freaking out,” Schmidt said. “For the ones that were a little bit more relaxed and enjoyed the remote aspects of Kauai, this only embellished it. If you were looking for an escape, this was it.”
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