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Council overrides mayor’s moratorium veto

Measure puts a pause on new visitor lodgings while council seeks solutions

The Maui County Council voted 6-3 on Friday to override Mayor Michael Victorino’s veto of a bill that would place a moratorium on new visitor lodgings on Maui. Council members in favor of the bill hope it will help ease the impacts of tourism on Maui, though those opposed worry it will be detrimental to an industry that employs many residents. — The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Maui County Council members Friday evening voted to override Mayor Michael Victorino’s veto of a bill that establishes a temporary moratorium on new transient accommodations on Maui.

Members voted 6-3 in favor of overriding the veto that Victorino said last month was necessary as he worried that a moratorium could in turn create “an influx of vacation rentals in our residential neighborhoods.”

Friday’s vote mirrored previous council votes in which the bill’s author, Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, along with Council Members Mike Molina, Kelly King, Tamara Paltin, Shane Sinenci and Gabe Johnson, were in support of the override.

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee along with Council Members Tasha Kama and Yuki Lee Sugimura opposed the moratorium.

With the passage of the bill, the moratorium will be in place for two years or — depending on whichever is sooner — until legislation is enacted by a council-established temporary investigative group that establishes a transient accommodation limit by type and by community plan area.

Island Plant Co. crew members Mark Carreon (from left), Jonathan Dameg and Dimetrio Gonzalez install an irrigation system as construction continues at the AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea project in February. The Maui County Council voted 6-3 on Friday to override Mayor Michael Victorino’s veto of a bill that would place a moratorium on new visitor lodgings on Maui. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The ordinance applies to any new transient accommodation that has not received its final discretionary approvals prior to the effective date of the ordinance, according to the bill.

About 50 people testified on the veto Friday, with about 30 asking that the veto be overridden and another 20 asking to uphold the veto.

Representatives of the hotel and construction industries turned out to support the veto, saying a moratorium would impact jobs and other businesses and that the bill would not stop visitors from coming. But those in support of the moratorium said something needed to be done to manage the visitor industry to protect the environment and Maui’s way of life. They added the bill would only put a pause on development and not take away any hotels or current business.

Victorino, in vetoing the bill, has said it could worsen the housing crisis as people may rent to visitors instead of local families and that the bill lacked transparency and public input, with changes made on second reading in early December.

During the vote, Rawlins-Fernandez countered Victorino, saying his claims of a lack of transparency and public input “is unfounded.”

“There has been so much public input as demonstrated today,” she said.

She added that changes made to the bill on second and final reading were not substantial as suggested by the mayor, but rather clarified the ordinance.

As to the possible proliferation of illegal vacation rentals, Rawlins-Fernandez said she had “confidence” in the mayor that the county would be able to crack down on them if need be.

The council passed a different version of a visitor lodging moratorium in July, but the mayor vetoed the measure and the council was unable to get the six votes needed to override it.

King, who proposed the earlier moratorium bill, said Friday, “I think there was a lot of misinformation in our testimony we received today, that was off a playlist sent out by some in the industry. We are not trying to shut down the industry. We are taking a pause so we can control the industry.”

King said this is a “stopgap” measure to allow the council to figure out how to go forward.

Paltin said the community needs to come up with solutions to the problem and not only leave it to the temporary investigative group.

She also wants to support the construction industry and said there are potential jobs in her district of West Maui as properties as well as the highway are seeing damage from sea level rise and need repairs.

But she said that overall, “we need to start doing things a little differently . . . take these two years to figure it out and focus on a circular economy.”

Lee agreed that the island needs to diversify its tourism-reliant economy and that it would take more than the temporary investigative group to work out solutions, but added that the council should not toy with an industry that provides substantial income for the county.

“With all their faults, we have to be careful how we scale back on that industry before we have something to replace it with,” Lee said, noting the visitor industry puts in at least 50 percent of the county’s real property tax revenue.

She said the blame for not having enough affordable housing rests with the council and the administration, not tourism, adding that “you have to have money” to pay for affordable housing and infrastructure such as new roads.

Sugimura said she was not supporting the bill, noting it implies “a false sense of security,” that it will stop visitors from coming to Maui.

She added that the visitor industry impacts layers of other industries, not only hotels, but also farmers and ranchers, as seen during the pandemic shutdown when those industries needed aid when visitors were not coming to the island.

“I do not support this moratorium. I do support working families, the people working hard to send their kids to school,” Sugimura said.

Kama said her late husband had been in the construction industry, and to tell bricklayers, laborers and other workers to “go do something else” for two years may be difficult.

“I’m not sure what that else is,” she said.

“I’m going to support those guys because I love them and I know how hard it will be for them if this bill passes.”

In a statement issued Friday night, Victorino said that although he was disappointed, he “intends to make the most of the two-year pause.”

“We need to move on and focus on the future of our people and our commitment to economic diversification and recovery from this crippling pandemic,” Victorino said. “I agree with Council Chair Lee. We need to look beyond the hospitality industry and improve the balance in our economy through support for industries such as diversified agriculture, arts, technology, wellness, cultural education and environmental restoration.”

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

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