WAIPAKE, Kauai — Members of one of Kauai’s most prominent and respected families are locked in a dispute with neighbors on a quiet street here over their operation — for nearly 20 years — of a retreat center sometimes used as a transient vacation rental.

The controversy has even split the Chandler family itself, with the owner of the property on Kapuna Road at odds with her brother: he lives next door and has aligned with neighbors who have petitioned the Kauai County Planning Commission to withhold an operating permit for the TVR.

The commission is scheduled to take up the matter at a meeting Tuesday. A planning department official has made a formal recommendation that the permit be granted. However, dozens of people who live nearby have signed the petition or sent letters of opposition.

John Friedman, a neighboring realtor, complained that “the idea of rewarding people who were doing things that were not in alignment with (zoning) restrictions seems ludicrous to me.”

He said the TVR operation creates noise and light pollution and has resulted in lost tourists knocking on the doors of neighbors in the middle of the night.

Nevertherless, said Friedman, “if someone doesn’t complain, there’s no enforcement, so it turns out that neighbors are turning in neighbors. It’s helping to tear apart the fabric of our residential (environment). It’s hard to have someone heavily financially rewarded for not abiding by the restrictions in their deed.”

Hilary Ferris-Chandler owns this transient vacation rental property on Kauai, now at the center of a major public dispute. Here, she works with her daughter, Kapua,  to maintain the house. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Friedman and his partner, Kristin Zimmerman, also complained that the TVR use of the Kapuna Road property drags down property values. Zimmerman said she has liability concerns about whether neighboring landowners could be sued if, for example, a TVR guest gets in a car accident on the shared driveway leading into the property. “We’d be responsible if their guests got in an accident,” she contended.

The situation is in many ways a typical TVR controversy for Kauai. However, at the same time it is a unique struggle for a family that has been prominent in the North Shore community for generations.

But as much as the story is an epic standoff between one historic family and its modern neighbors — made more compelling by the fact that the dispute has resulted in cleavage within the family — it is a stark example of how slowly Kauai County government moves and how much confusion and anger such delays can create.

For example, the TVR in question was constructed in about 2003 — several years before the county adopted any kind of written rules and policies governing such facilities. Owner Hilary Ferris-Chandler contends — and county officials do not dispute — that they were told at the time that because there were no formal rules in place, the property could be developed without county interference.

But when Ferris-Chandler eventually sought a permit, the process slowed to a crawl and stopped.

Neighbors who objected to the TVR tied the matter up in litigation. It required two separate rulings from the Intermediate Court of Appeals to clarify that the family held the status of an “applicant” for a permit. Finally, in 2016, the court ordered the county to begin formally processing the application.

Yet more than four years after the appeals court ruling in August 2016, the application process remained stalled without explanation. It was only within the last two weeks that a county planner, Mike Laureta, recommended that the project be approved.

More than 40 people who live near the property have submitted a petition to the Planning Commission for the hearing set for Tuesday along with a dozen letters of protest and numerous requests to testify at the hearing.

Civil Beat made repeated requests to the county for an explanation of why it has taken more than four years to process an application that the appeals court ordered to be taken up forthwith. Several different county officials contacted did not respond. They included Laureta and Planning Director Ka‘aina Hull.

Shortly after the appeals court ruling in 2016, then County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask wrote to the Chandler family’s lawyer that the county would not appeal the ruling to the Hawaii Supreme Court and “will accept your client’s application for a nonconforming use certificate.”

The county, Trask wrote, “wishes your client to know that there was no malice, animosity, arbitrariness or intent to deny your client of any of its rights.”

Meanwhile, 43 people who live near the property have submitted a petition to the Planning Commission for the hearing set for Tuesday along with a dozen letters of protest and numerous requests to testify at the hearing.

A Long History

Members of the Chandler family can be found throughout the North Shore. Ironically, some of them have been anti-TVR activists and a few members of the family were among dozens of Wainiha residents who mobilized to oppose the presence of a bizarre Colorado-based cult, Love Has Won, who were eventually driven from the island under police escort. The incident was at least in part fueled by local opposition to TVRs that attract tourists perceived as hostile to island residents.

Members of what became the Chandler family have resided on Kauai for hundreds of years. According to Kapua Chandler, daughter of Hilary Ferris-Chandler whose parents developed the Kapuna Road TVR, the name traces to a 19th century judge named Chandler who adopted a boy whose descendants continued the family line around Haena and farmed taro and other crops, as well as engaging in other activities typical of the era.

By the early 20th century, the family was headed by Elizabeth Kapeka Mahuiki, whose ancestors came originally from Kalalau who had married Francis Chandler, one of 12 children born and raised in the Haena area. Some of the family’s story is also recounted in “Haena: Through the Eyes of the Ancestors,” first published in 2008 by Kauai scholar Carlos Andrade.

Hilary Ferris-Chandler married into the Chandler family and inherited the Kapuna Road property from her parents who had developed it in 2003 as a retreat house to host artists and accommodate visiting paddling clubs, hula companies and groups of Kauai residents. After catastrophic floods devastated Hanalei and Wainiha in 2018, Ferris-Chandler took in an estimated 85 people who had been flooded out of their homes, she said.

The house, a modest single-story building, has five bedrooms, each of which has a separate entrance. It has a large open-air common space and an interior living room-kitchen area. There is a large hot tub, but no swimming pool.

Ferris-Chandler said she and her husband asked the county in 2003 what permits would be necessary and were told that there were no regulations or standards in place. The Planning Department record in the case, which takes up an entire banker’s box of papers, appears to confirm her assertions.

Hilary Ferris-Chandler pilots a golf cart on the disputed property. The controversy has caused a rift in the longtime Kauai family. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Opposition from neighbors materialized shortly after the retreat house opened. Complaints have been fairly typical of such disputes.

According to interviews with neighbors and various documents in the county record, complaints related to noise, headlights illuminating neighboring homes at all hours of the day and night, parties and other kinds of conduct often linked to off-island vacationers in celebratory — sometimes intoxicated — moods.

The situation has somewhat abated since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Ferris-Chandler shut down the TVR operation, she said, and she does not plan to reopen until sometime in 2021 at the earliest. Neighbors do not dispute that the vacation rental has been out of action for several months. “I’m going to wait until it’s completely safe,” she said.

Ferris-Chandler and her daughter, Kapua, say that much of the opposition has come from part-time residents who only spend a few weeks at a time on Kauai.

“We don’t even have a yard crew,” Ferris-Chandler said. Complaining parties, she said, “are often mainland people who don’t give anything back.”

Both Ferris-Chandler and Chandler forcefully denied the allegations of noise and disruption that are common elements in the petition. Chandler noted that when hula halau visit, they often play drums and chant. She said one repeat customer over many years is a mainland group that conducts silent retreats.

One source of opposition stands out, however. In a letter to the Planning Commission, Ben and Colette Ferris — Hilary Ferris-Chandler’s brother and sister-in-law — objected to the TVR permit.

“We respectfully request that the application … be denied,” they wrote. “The house was constructed to accommodate large groups and has had 15-plus vacation renters at one time.”

County planners, who finally released their report on the situation on Nov. 2, concluded that state and federal law, when considered together, are consistent with allowing the Ferris-Chandler operation to continue.

“It is recommended that (the) special permit be approved,” the county report finds, though with conditions limiting the number of vehicles that can be on the property at one time, that Ferris-Chandler introduce a ban on loud noise after 10 p.m. and that she develop a formal evacuation plan in case of emergency. No more than 12 people can be on the premises at any one time.

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