Members held the first in a series of meetings to gather public input on what actions the county should take.

Maui County Council members heard specific ideas and broad outlines from the public Monday on what they should consider when developing a comprehensive recovery and resiliency plan in response to the August wildfires.

The council’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee, chaired by Nohelani U‘u-Hodgins, also heard words of caution during the nearly two-hour meeting at the county building in Wailuku.

“If we’re not careful in our approach and our process, there’s going to be a cultural war,” said Foster Ampong, whose family was greatly impacted by the tragedy in Lahaina.

Foster Ampong shared his thoughts with Maui County Council members on the resiliency plan. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Foster Ampong shared his thoughts with Maui County Council members on the resiliency plan Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

It’s been six weeks since the Aug. 8 fires killed almost 100 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and businesses, burned almost 3,500 acres and caused several billion dollars in damage in Lahaina and Upcountry Maui.

This was the first of likely several meetings in which council members say they want to connect directly with residents, especially those of West Maui, before crafting and facilitating a plan through a series of complementary ordinances and resolutions.

“We want to hear from everyone and make sure everyone’s voices are included in these conversations,” U‘u-Hodgins said.

The Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee, chaired by Nohelani U‘u-Hodgins, heard from the public Monday as the county develops a resiliency plan in response to the August wildfires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
The council’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee wants to make sure everyone’s voice is included, chair Nohelani U‘u-Hodgins said. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Roughly a dozen members of the public testified during the morning meeting, ranging from investment property owners to longtime Maui residents.

Stephen West of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said many of the union’s members have been affected.

“A lot of them want hope,” he said. “They want to get back, they want to start the rebuilding process.”

West identified one of the issues that should be resolved in the recovery plan is unpermitted structures.

With Lahaina being a plantation town, he said many of the homes that were lost would not meet current building codes. That’s a problem when it comes to rebuilding – the owner can only get permits for a one-bedroom home instead of multiple bedrooms.

He said it’s also critical to consider the interests of the many Filipino families who were affected but are not at public meetings because they are still working two or three jobs.

Stephen West of the ILWU offered his thoughts and insights to the Maui County Council during a meeting Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Stephen West of the ILWU said the council needed to consider the interests of Filipino families who were too busy working to attend public meetings. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

West also urged the council to place a moratorium on all new transient vacation rentals and Airbnb’s, which he said contributed significantly to the housing crisis before the wildfires and is “counterproductive” to the recovery effort.

Jan Handrix, who owns a condo in the Lahaina burn zone, said the council needs to ensure the recovery plan is fair.

She said her condo building is still standing but it will likely be a year or two before she can regain access as the building’s viability needs to be tested. But she still has to pay property taxes, unlike the owners of buildings that were completely destroyed.

“The decision to waive real estate taxes only for those completely destroyed is awfully arbitrary,” Handrix said of Mayor Richard Bissen’s action last month. “It’s not OK. We need help.”

U‘u-Hodgins encouraged the public to participate in the recovery and resiliency plan conversation, including by submitting written testimony if speaking in person is too uncomfortable.

Council members anticipate a larger crowd at next week’s meeting in West Maui, noting the space can accommodate some 800 people. The meeting starts at 9 a.m., Sept. 27, in the Honoapiilani Ballroom at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa in Kaanapali.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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