WAILUKU - Maui County Council members continued wrestling Monday with the dilemma of how to cope with illegal vacation rentals, a problem made more difficult by limited county resources available for enforcement.
Residents say they want to enjoy their neighborhoods without being subjected to the noise and other nuisances from unpermitted operations conducting business in residential areas. Vacation rental proponents maintain there should be a way to permit the operations that provide jobs and contribute to the island's economy without upsetting neighbors.
A vacation rental bill making its way through the council's Planning Committee aims to do that and establish a streamlined permitting process, although numerous questions remained and specific language for the measure needed to be sorted out. The panel met for most of Monday and deferred action to allow committee staff to incorporate revisions in a new draft of the bill.
Committee Chairman Don Couch said he hoped the bill would be ready to advance to the full council after the panel's next meeting Jan. 23 or the session following that.
But even after the county Department of Planning has a new enforcement tool with the measure, it still will have a small staff to tackle compliance.
Maui County has 1,100 to 1,500 unpermitted vacation rentals, according to estimates by the Maui Vacation Rental Association. And Couch has proposed capping the number of legal vacation rentals at 400.
Council members and others questioned what would happen with vacation rentals that still would be unpermitted. Would they fly under the radar? Get shut down or voluntarily go out of business?
Bud Pikrone, general manager of the Wailea Community Association, expressed skepticism, saying there needs to be a commitment toward enforcement. He said he doesn't think unpermitted operators would willingly pay higher taxes or pay a manager or a management company to oversee their properties.
"I don't think this bill is going to solve any problems. I think it could create problems," he said.
Couch said the figure of 400 was an "arbitrary number" and could be changed, if necessary.
He has said the measure would make it easier for vacation rental applicants to get permits from the county while also enabling the county to shut down illegal operations with new enforcement rules.
When asked to comment
on enforcement issues, Planning Director Will Spence
told committee members that his department has five employees handling a wide range of enforcement issues. One of those is a supervisor, and, of the remaining four, one was unable to work most of last year because of injuries, he said.
Nevertheless, department staff issued 158 warnings in 2011, he said. Those involved not only vacation rentals. They included issues relating to bed-and-breakfast operations, farm plans, historic districts, home occupations, shoreline matters, parking and special management area matters, among others, Spence said. For vacation rentals only, the department issued 28 warnings in 2011.
Also, department staff conducted 391 on-site inspections last year. Of those, 72 were related to vacation rentals, he reported.
Spence said the department's Enforcement Division is "very active," but he said he thinks "enforcement could be more effective."
Council Member Joe Pontanilla, chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, asked if the Planning Department needs more enforcement staff to handle complaints.
"Most departments think they could use more personnel," Spence said, adding that the staff could be more effective with a couple more tasked with handling enforcement issues.
Aaron Shinmoto, administrator of the Planning Department's Zoning Administration and Enforcement Division, said enforcement is more than simply assigning more people to do the work.
County enforcement officials need to build a case against violators, he said.
"Property owners do have rights," he said. "We can't break down doors."
Shinmoto said he believes the bill would help with enforcement by giving his staff another tool to work with.
Under a draft of the bill, a paid ad for a vacation rental would be taken as evidence, until proved otherwise, of an illegal operation. Advertising for a legitimate vacation rental would include a permit number.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.