Lava from the Mauna Loa eruption was apparently headed away from homes in the volcano’s southwest rift zone Monday, offering at least a temporary reprieve to property owners in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates and other areas that are most at risk. But the new eruption reopens old questions about where development should be allowed, and under what conditions.

Big Island locator map

Hawaii County is still in the process of buying up properties affected by the last devastating eruption of Kilauea volcano, which destroyed more than 700 homes in the Leilani Estates and Kapoho areas in 2018.

Before that disaster, the Kilauea flows destroyed Kalapana in 1990, and before that was the loss of Kapoho village in 1960. This is not a new problem.

Sunday marked the first time Mauna Loa volcano has erupted since 1984, but county officials are once again facing a situation where lava could threaten housing that has sprung up over the years in what is known as Lava Zone 1. Those are the riskiest areas that are smack on the volcanic rift zones.

There has been talk of banning development in the highest-risk lava zones in the past, but that talk never translated into much action. People still buy and sell land in the riskiest areas, and land owners can still obtain county building permits to construct homes there.

Lava pours out of the summit crater of Mauna Loa about 6:35 a.m. Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, as seen from Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area on Maunakea, Hawaii. Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, began spewing ash and debris from its summit, prompting civil defense officials to warn residents on Monday to prepare in case the eruption causes lava to flow toward communities. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today via AP)
Lava pours out of the northeast rift zone Mauna Loa about 6:35 a.m. Monday, as seen from the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area on Saddle Road. The movement of the flow away from the southwest rift zone, offers a reprieve to homes in that high-risk area. Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today via AP/2022

And this problem is largely of the county’s own making. State and county officials authorized subdivisions of many thousands of lots in many of those risky areas 50 or 60 years ago, and those subdivisions now offer some of the most affordable land and housing in the state.

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth said Monday he has mixed feelings about the idea of restricting or blocking development on the lands that are most at risk from eruptions.

“In this position, you have a duty to everybody in the county,” he said.

Of the large subdivisions, he said, “Hindsight is always 20-20. Should they have allowed what they allowed in Puna, back when they did? No. But now people have property. They own stuff because the county has given them this opportunity. And so, there’s mixed feelings.”

“There’s some people that that’s their piece of the American dream, and so it’s difficult separating all these facts out. Do you want to be the person stealing someone’s American dream, what they’ve earned?” Roth added: “Like many things in this job, it’s not just a simple yes or no.”

But the county’s longstanding policy of allowing development in high-hazard zones — and even helping it along by rebuilding roads in high-risk areas after the roads have been destroyed by flows — has critics. Bobby Camara, who was born and raised on the Big Island and studied the history of local eruptions, is one.

“This is just plain stupid. We know what the hazards are. People should not be building down there, and as I have pointed out repeatedly in the past, every eruption and lava flow that happens incurs more and more costs to the citizenry, because there is more and more development,” he said.

“I understand it’s a really difficult problem, but there has to be a way to stop it — just an ‘enter at your own risk’ sort of thing,” he said. The eruptions are “not something that happens every 500 years.”

Camara, an outspoken author and blogger, has approached a variety of county officials over the years to urge them to stop allowing development in the highest risk areas classified as Zone 1. He has had no success, he said.

“As a taxpayer, my question is, why do I need to pay for the stupid arrogance of others? I shouldn’t have to pay for that. You should build a house wherever you want, understanding whatever hazards are in the neighborhood, and deal with it,” he said.

He also wants assurances that people who insist on staying in high hazard zones understand that the government won’t bail them out later. That would apply, for example, to people who decline to sell their properties under the current county program that buys out the owners of homes and lands that were affected by the 2018 eruption.

That program is being financed with about $107 million in federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, and is designed to prevent the affected lands from again being impacted by future eruptions. The lands the county is buying will be maintained as open space, according to the project web site.

The ground is shaking and swelling at Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano in the world, indicating that it could erupt. Scientists say they don't expect that to happen right away but officials on the Big Island of Hawaii are telling residents to be prepared in case it does erupt soon. This map shows the lava flow hazard level zones for the island.
A map of the lava flow hazard zones for Hawaii island. AP

Under that program, the county pays up to $230,000 for homes affected by the 2018 eruption — including homes that were destroyed or isolated by lava — with the final prices based on the assessed values of the properties before the flow. The county will pay up to $22,000 for raw land that was affected by the eruption under the same program.

A total of 820 owners applied for the buyouts, and 85 properties have closed so far at a total cost of nearly $15.8 million. Roth said that process is creating a “checkerboard” of lands that the county holds as open space, intermixed with private lots that can still be developed for new housing.

Hawaii County Council member Ashley Kierkiewicz, who is chair of the council’s planning committee, said some former residents are refusing the sell out to the county because they want to rebuild. Kierkiewicz represents Lower Puna, which includes Leilani Estates and a number of other areas at high risk for lava inundation.

“People lost everything, and this is a way to help them get back on their feet,” she said.

“We have to start taking a hard look at what’s our policy going to be, because we know this may happen again in our lifetimes, and so we have to start having that conversation,” she said. “We’ve got sea level rise, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got lava. We have to start thinking about these policies and programs within the county.”

“People are still moving in, I see license plates from Vermont and Texas and all over the place,” she said. “This is seen as the last affordable Mecca, Hawaii island in particular.”

Kierkiewicz said she has reached out to the Roth administration to try to pull together a core group that will begin working on those issues as the County Council prepares to update the county general plan. The general plan is supposed to guide development in the county.

She suggested the county might relax the building code somewhat, or encourage use of modular housing that can be moved more easily.

“We have to explore everything,” she said.

But she does not believe the county can simply ban new construction or refuse to issue building permits in the highest risk areas.

“Where are these folks going to go?” she said.

That idea was discussed during former Mayor Harry Kim’s administration, but “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

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