Denby Fawcett: Make Monster House Owners Tear Them Down - Honolulu Civil Beat

We’ve surpassed the halfway point of our fundraising campaign! Join nearly 2,500 readers who have made a gift to Civil Beat this holiday season!

We've raised $121,000 toward our $225,000 year-end goal!


More than 2,432 donors have already made gifts during our year-end campaign!

We’ve surpassed the halfway point of our fundraising campaign! Join nearly 2,500 readers who have made a gift to Civil Beat this holiday season!

We've raised $121,000 toward our $225,000 year-end goal!


More than 2,432 donors have already made gifts during our year-end campaign!

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

It is discouraging to watch monster houses keep springing up as developers cram multiple large structures into what were once single-family properties in older neighborhoods such as Kapahulu, Kalihi and Kaimuki.

Opinion article badge

Many of the oversize houses dominating relatively small lots are ugly yet they are legally constructed. But others have erupted in violation of city zoning law.

That’s despite two new city ordinances with stricter limits on how much living structure can cover a single property as well as how many wet bars and bathrooms and laundry rooms can be put in a dwelling.

But some developers are either ignoring the new restrictions or finding ways to sneak around them.

It is time now for the city to try something different. When a monster house developer keeps racking up violations or refuses to pay thousands of dollars in fines or lies on a permit application rather than just give them months, sometimes years to correct the problem, the city instead should clamp down hard and make the builder tear down the illegal structure or demolish its specific features that violate the law.

Too cruel, you say. Well, it’s been done before.

That’s what John Whalen did in the late 1980s when the developer of a Kahala Avenue house ignored the city’s repeated warnings to stop building too high.

Whalen invited all the local TV news stations to come and film on the day the city made the developer tear down the home’s high-pitched roof.

At the time, Whalen was director of the city Department of Land Utilization, the precursor of today’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

“The goal was to create a deterrent. We wanted to show builders that it wasn’t like the old day when a violator could drag out his response to an enforcement or ignore a warning  — that we were going to treat the law seriously and enforce it evenly,” Whalen said.

Whalen said going after very serious offenders to set an example of what happens when you break the law would go a long way for DPP today, which like his department then, does not have enough qualified building inspectors to chase down every violation.

DPP Deputy Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna in an emailed statement to Civil Beat says the city has the power to require a developer violating building codes to demolish the illegal work.

“We basically have the same authority that John Whalen had and will do whatever is within that authority to assure compliance with the monster homes ordinances, which may include tear down or realignment of those portions of a dwelling that exceed the development standards,” say Apuna.

But since Whalen’s time, I can’t think of a single instance when this has happened.

During the administration of Mayor Kirk Caldwell, DPP’s policy was to help errant builders get back into compliance with zoning laws rather than punish them for repeated violations.

As violations keep occurring, DPP needs to be punitive rather than forgiving.

Honolulu City Council Chairman Tommy Waters says he likes the idea of making violators take down illegal structures they have built in defiance of the law and he says he’s talking to Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm about criminally prosecuting developers who lie about what they plan to build when they apply for their permits.

“We need sanctions that have a chilling effect to send a message to repeat violators that breaking building laws could end up being very expensive for them,” he said.

DPP today is well aware of who’s made an honest mistake on a permit and needs time to correct it and who’s a serial violator.

Here are examples of three illegal monster house developers DPP recently ordered to stop building to correct their violations. They are all within a mile of each other on Maunalani Heights:

Christy Lei is the developer of this monster house at 3615 Sierra Drive. It is three structures containing four residential dwellings. DPP says the project is too tall, has too large a floor area ratio and too many wet bars, too many bathrooms and does not have enough side yard space. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2022

• 3615 Sierra Drive. On June 16, DPP revoked three permits issued to longtime monster house developer Christy Lei.

The notice of violation says Lei’s three large structures containing four residential dwellings on the property have too many bathrooms (15 when only nine and a half are allowed) and too many wet bars (four when only two are allowed) and the structures are too high and too big and the owner-developer has not provided sufficient side yards.

On the notice of violation, DPP says Lei gave incorrect information about the size and scope of the project when she applied for the three permits.

Lei has been ordered “to stop illegal work immediately.”

Her attorney, Elijah Yip, filed an appeal with the Building Board of Appeals on June 28. Yip says after DPP approved the developer’s plans for the three structures “the owner relied on such assurances in good faith” and went ahead to commence building. Now two of the structures are 75% completed, the other dwelling 50% finished and the developer has invested more than $1.5 million in the property.

If the board rejects the Lei’s appeal, she can file an appeal in Circuit Court.

When I asked DPP why Lei was allowed to build for almost a year without being informed that she was in serious violation, Apuna wrote: “The current administration has been on the job for almost 18 months and now know more than we did a year ago when this issue was last in the media. We continue to question and learn about our permitting and inspection processes to ensure that we’re properly permitting these types of structures.”

And why did DPP approve Ms. Lei’s plans for 3615 Sierra Drive and let her begin work when it was clear from neighbors’ complaints she was exceeding from the very beginning the limits that city law allows?

Apuna wrote: “We are currently investigating why and how approvals were made with the incorrect information submitted by the applicant.”

• 4103 and 4103A Pakolu Place. DPP on June 15 issued  a notice-of-violation/stop work order to the developer-owners of this property for “falsifying information on plans.” This 8,250-square-foot lot on which two large family dwellings are planned to be built is about a mile up Maunalani Heights from Christy Lei’s Sierra Drive development.

DPP says owners Qin Hui Wang and Yu Fang Chen have yet to appeal the violation. They are ordered to apply for a new permit to correct the violations and restore the property back to conditions that would be allowed under the city’s land use ordinances.

This house at 1352 Koko Head Ave. received a stop work order in June because DPP says the applicant falsified information on the plans. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2022

• 1352 Koko Head Avenue. DPP on June 20 issued a notice of violation to stop work that had begun on a new three-story, two-family dwelling on an 8,233-square-foot lot. The order says DPP issued the permits to the property in error and the permit will be revoked. The owner must now apply for a new permit to correct all building violations.

Here are two more large house developments where the department is currently enforcing multiple violations. Both are in the Kapalama area.

• 2175 Makanani Drive below Kamehameha Schools. DPP on May 11 issued a stop work order to the owner for grading and demolishing a structure on the property without a permit as well as erecting a 36-foot by 20-foot, 8-foot tall first floor structure without any permits. The project running down the side of a hill is planned to be four stories tall.

• 2526 Waolani Avenue. DPP in March 2019 issued two notices of violation to the owner of this 10-bedroom.

The sanctions were for unlawfully building a 5-foot-high, 72-foot-long retaining wall without a permit, which affected the city’s drainage easement through the property, and for demolishing an existing city drainage canal behind the house that was supposed to remain intact.

In an email to Civil Beat Friday, Apuna says the owner has failed to correct either violation in the more than three years since getting the notice and as of June 24 has racked up $46,750 in fines, which  increase $50 each day the property remains in violation.

You have to wonder what kind of a deterrent it is when DPP has allowed the owner of 2526 Waolani Ave. to rack up $45,750 fines and so far has not made him pay any of the escalating fine or correct his illegal construction.

This brings me back to my original point. The city needs to get stricter about its enforcement of violations and also more proactive at the beginning of a building project before a developer gets too far along and enforcement becomes legally complicated. Even if it means making the builder tear down something that doesn’t comply with the permit.

Read this next:

My Year Serving On The Honolulu Youth Commission

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Great article. Clearly, these monster homes are not a solution to the housing crisis. That's a huge problem that a few rooms won't fix. C&C should look into foreign investors who have places just sitting empty in structures that are legal. I think the question Denby is raising is how are these developers allowed to continuously make these huge violations. We know that answer...bribes. When our little non-profit wanted to make some improvements, the DPP was all over it. So they can be there and be bullies for the small local folks. And then there are the unions...

fiona · 5 months ago

These people need to get audited by the IRS.

Sun_Duck · 5 months ago

Miss Fawcett, the developers pay a lot of money into the pockets of those who run this bureaucracy. Not only in political donations, many of which is under the table, as we have seen recently, but in otherwaysas well. So getting them to punish developers who donate either legally and/or illegally, is going to be tough. I support that the fines be more like $500 a day at least, instead of a mere $50.

Scotty_Poppins · 5 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.