Most of the commercial businesses have yet to submit a right-of-entry application to the county, and hundreds of forms turned in by residents were incomplete.

The Lahaina fires destroyed Lanny Daise’s plantation-style home on Aki Street, which was built by his wife’s grandparents in the 1960s and remodeled just six years ago. 

Eager to rebuild on land with a great view of the ocean and mountains, Daise is one of nearly 1,800 property owners who have signed up to have the Army Corps of Engineers clear their property to make way for reconstruction.

Maui County is pushing to get eligible residential and commercial property owners who want their cleanup done by the Corps to complete the registration process by March, which will allow the more efficient removal of an expected 600,000 cubic yards of fire debris from the 5-square-mile burn zone. 

Alpha Inc. earthmover doing debris removal at site in Lahaina in Janaruary 2024.
The debris removal process started earlier this month in Lahaina, but the work can only happen through the Army Corps of Engineers after property owners complete a right-of-entry form with the county. (Courtesy: Maui County/2024)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not need permission from property owners for the first phase of fire cleanup, because the hazardous and toxic materials it removed were deemed a public health and safety concern.

But the Army Corps of Engineers cannot enter private properties to begin the next phase of debris removal without what are known as right-of-entry forms, Mark Wingate, the debris task force leader for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said during a recent community meeting.

The fire debris removal is expected to take more than a year to complete. The material is being trucked to a temporary landfill in Olowalu.

A Costly Process

While the final cost of the cleanup will not be known until it’s completed, Maui County estimates the process will run $200,000-plus per property. If the Corps does the cleanup, property owners pay no out-of-pocket cost for the work, though any insurance coverage they have for debris removal is expected to go to the Corps.

Private debris removal contractors likely would be at least as costly because they must adhere to the same stringent specialized hazmat protocol as the Corps.

“I can’t just call my brother-in-law who has heavy machinery to do it,” said Erin Wade, the county’s planning and development chief.

As of Thursday, the county had received 1,795 forms out of the approximately 2,108 properties eligible for the Corps’ free debris removal.

The owners of approximately 313 eligible properties in Lahaina — about a third of them commercial — have not submitted forms. Reasons include probate problems and indecision about whether to use the government-sponsored cleanup or a private contractor.

Maui County, working with government partners, has an online viewer that tracks what properties have submitted their right-of-entry applications so Army Corps of Engineers can go clean up the fire debris. (Courtesy: Maui County/2024)
Maui County has an online viewer that tracks what properties have submitted their right-of-entry applications so the Army Corps of Engineers can go clean up the fire debris. Blue marks properties that submitted the forms, gray indicates those who haven’t, and the red stars show EPA-deferred properties. (Courtesy: Maui County/2024)

In Kula, 100% of the owners of 26 properties eligible for Corps debris removal signed right-of-entry forms and had the work completed. So far, no property owners in Lahaina have told the county they are opting out of the Corps’ cleanup, Wade said.

The county began seeking right-of-entry forms on Oct. 16. Although it has forms in the pipeline from 85% of residential properties in Lahaina, only 47% of the nearly 200 eligible commercial properties have filed.

“I think commercial didn’t realize they were eligible because this is actually the first fire that FEMA has made commercial properties eligible,” Wade said.

The top reason property owners are considering having a private contractor do the debris removal is they believe they can retain their slab — the concrete foundation of the home. But Wade said fire and other experts have come to Lahaina and determined that the fire burned so hot that most if not all slabs would be unsalvageable.

“The Army Corps’ policy is if ash and debris fell on the slab, it’s unlikely to be structurally sound and it’s contaminated and we will pull it,” Wade said. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”

Property owners who sign a right-of-entry can later decide to opt out.

Paperwork Challenges

Of the nearly 1,800 right-of-entry forms submitted so far, only 994 have been approved by the county.

331 applications are missing elements such as an insurance declaration page or policy number, signatures from all property owners, the deed or a simple verification of the email address used. The others are under review to confirm ownership and insurance, and to examine condo documents, Wade said. Hundreds of other property owners have failed to verify their email address.

Daise, the homeowner on Aki Street, had to make three trips to meet with volunteer disaster workers associated with the Corps to get the right-of-entry form completed because of complications with insurance.

“I understand they don’t want us double dipping on our benefits,” he said. “And everybody was super nice and compassionate, but they told us something different every time we went in.”

There also were some delays in approval for owners who have multiple properties due to a glitch in the online system that required a different email address for each property. Wade said a “workaround” for this issue is available on the website.

The county has also been working to help property owners get through the process, including more challenging situations where multigenerational property has been passed down to a family member without an official transfer of the deed.

“I feel like it’s more complicated than it needs to be in some cases,” Wade said. “But, of course, land ownership is sticky in Hawaii. So we want to make sure we are being careful and we’re not taking action (to remove demolished structures) when we’re not actually authorized to do so.”

Homes made up 86% of the roughly 2,200 structures damaged in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Homes made up 86% of the roughly 2,200 structures damaged in the Aug. 8 wildfires in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

If property owners do not know or understand what is holding up their approval, they should contact the county’s call center.

Maui County has determined areas to be prioritized for processing of ROE applications and debris removal based on health and safety.

Col. Jesse Curry, recovery field office commander with the Corps, said during a community meeting these areas have “properties that are closest to existing structures, to parts of Lahaina that people are currently residing, or could reside in the near future.”

Prioritization is then based on environmental risk, followed by approved right-of-entry forms.

“We have to determine what is the most effective way or most efficient way for the contractor to mobilize throughout Lahaina,” Curry said. “We typically will gravitate towards those neighborhoods that have the most complete number of ROEs in them.”

It is still being worked out how the Corps will handle debris removal of condominiums, and properties that have a shared wall, some on Front Street, when ROEs are not received from all owners.

“I don’t think folks should panic if their neighbors haven’t signed up,” Wade said. “But it’s very helpful if they can.”

On Saturday, Maui County is hosting its second right-of-entry workshop from 3 to 5:30 p.m. at the Lahainaluna High School cafeteria in Lahaina. Wade said four people will be there specifically to help property owners with their individual right-of-entry forms.

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

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