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‘Aina kupuna’ bill to assist longtime local families advances

Other bills passed on first reading would acquire Waiale land, change rental permit rules

The Maui County Council approved a bill on first reading that would allow the county to acquire 493 acres in Waiale for cultural preservation for $10.5 million. It was among several measures passed on first reading on Friday, including the “aina kupuna” bill that aims to keep taxes down for longtime local families who own property in areas with skyrocketing values. — Rendering courtesy Keani Rawlins-Fernandez

Calling it “historic,” the Maui County Council gave near-final approval to a bill that would help longtime local families from being taxed out of properties they have held for decades.

Council members voted 8-0, with Council Member Kelly King excused, to pass the “aina kupuna” bill on first reading Friday. The bill will allow qualifying owners to only pay the minimum property tax, which is currently $350 a year. Real property owners will also need to dedicate their land as “aina kupuna” and fulfill eligibility requirements. A second and final reading on the bill is needed.

Many longtime landowners in highly sought areas near the beachfront and rural areas have faced skyrocketing property taxes in the thousands due to land speculators as well as high-end homes and new developments being built around them. Some longtime property owners said they even had to ask their children to help with paying the taxes.

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said the bill was “historic.” In the 1990s when Lee was a council member, she said the council passed a bill that would allow taro farmers to consolidate their parcels so they only would need to pay a minimum property tax once versus multiple times.

The same council also passed legislation that the county would only assess property taxes on state Department of Hawaii Home Lands residents’ homes not the land, Lee said.

Other counties called Maui County to discourage passing such a law, she said.

“And now, again, we have the opportunity to take part in landmark legislation,” Lee said.

Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who introduced the bill, spoke about the history of Hawaii’s population and how it has become increasingly difficult for longtime local families to hold on to land they’ve held for years, especially lands in special management areas where development of hotels and resorts and transient accommodations along with “mansions of all kinds” are increasing property taxes.

She said these landowners may not have been able to seek property tax relief through other county programs.

“This is one way to close the gap, to help those that have fallen through the cracks and we have not been able to help,” Rawlins-Fernandez said, adding more proposed legislation is on its way for property tax relief for longtime Maui County residents.

Rawlins-Fernandez also introduced amendments to the bill Friday, including changing the definition of “aina kupuna” to mean real property owned in whole or in part in fee simple by one or more descendants of the person who owned the property at least 80 years prior to the application. The bill previously listed an ownership date of June 30, 1940 to qualify.

Other changes include requiring the aina kupuna property to be in the special management area and to have been assessed more than $50,000 in property taxes over the last 10 years.

The bill overall will not apply to real property owned by a corporation where the stock is sold to or owned by the general public, nor can the property be used for commercial purposes such as transient vacation rentals, short-term rental and bed-and-breakfast homes. But, commercial agriculture on the land is allowed.

The bill does allow at least the longtime Luuwai family in Makena to continue its short-term rental. The property was granted a conditional permit for transient vacation rental use in accordance with the comprehensive zoning ordinance and was classified as “commercialized residential” prior to May 23, 2012.

Also passing on first reading on Friday included bills to:

• Allow the county to acquire 493 acres in Waiale for cultural preservation for $10.5 million, receive a dedication of an additional 50 acres also for cultural preservation and receive a donation of 23.38 acres for affordable housing off Hansen Road, both from Alexander & Baldwin. The land in Central Maui abutting Kuihelani Highway owned by A&B had been slated for a master-planned community with homes, commercial areas, a middle school, public facility and parks, but iwi kupuna, or ancestral remains, were found in the area.

• Tighten many development and land use laws for the Wailuku Redevelopment Area, which encompasses roughly 68 acres in the heart of town. It also pulls power from the Maui Redevelopment Agency, a county panel that oversees decisions for height variances, zoning and other rules, instead placing it in the hands of the county Board of Variances and Appeals. Members said in council committee that changes needed to be made in order to evade long-term litigation. In 2020, community groups opposed to a proposed six-story Wailuku hotel filed suit challenging the legal authority of the Maui Redevelopment Agency.

• Limit short-term rental home permits to one per person and one per property, expand notification requirements for bed-and-breakfast homes and short-term rental home permit applications and establish that family trusts may hold bed-and-breakfast home and short-term rental home permits. Council Member Tamara Paltin, chairwoman of the Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee which recommended approval of the bill, also made an amendment Friday which would provide flexibility in transferring bed-and-breakfast home permits. Owners said in previous testimony that they were concerned about not being able to transfer their permits to family members.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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