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County mayoral candidates tackle South Maui issues

Five candidates have filed to run so far in crowded mayor’s race

Climate change, cesspools and ocean pollution, and homelessness in South Maui are among the issues that Maui County mayoral candidates plan to tackle if elected.

The five candidates who have filed to run for mayor so far — Cullan Bell, Richard Bissen, Alana Kay, Mike Molina and incumbent Mayor Michael Victorino — offered their take on county concerns during a virtual candidate forum hosted by the Kihei Community Association on Tuesday night.

One of those issues included the impacts of climate change, especially in an area that recently experienced “mud floods” during the December storm that damaged roads and homes from north Kihei to Maui Meadows.

As the frequency and intensity of these storms increase due to climate change, Bissen said that the county needs to create local working groups “from those areas” that are knowledgeable on various environmental issues and can establish solutions.

“The county’s role can be to provide some of the legal and policy tools to these groups to help facilitate discussions that need to take place,” said the longtime Kihei resident and retired 2nd Circuit Court chief judge.

Through her personal experience living in Kihei, as well as her environmental activism and studies in sustainability, Kay said that coastal areas will continue to have flooding issues if infrastructure continues to be built over or above the natural wetlands.

Government leaders, stakeholders and community members need to understand “island hydrology” in order to resolve the problem, she added.

“The wetlands serve as a buffer between the ocean surges and the water that comes down the mountain and nature designed it that way,” Kay said. “I really emphasize not blaming things on climate change when we are the ones being neglectful and abusive of our environment. . . . I truly feel we need to stop building along the Piilani Highway.”

Deforestation by livestock up the mountain is another culprit of mud floods, which ends up rushing down and polluting the streets, homes and shoreline, Victorino said. This can be mitigated by land management and pipelining federal funds for infrastructure.

“We need a system of dikes and maybe even some dams, which we are working on right now. We also have the master plan for the Kihei drainage system, which extends from the north Kihei all the way across to Kamaole III,” he said. “We know climate change is here and we need to do what we need to do now and make sure we protect those homes that are there and not build anymore that are in the wetlands area.”

The “biggest problem” is that government leadership has been reactive to weather events instead of proactive, said Bell, also a Kihei resident. During the dry seasons, he believes that staying up on drainage clearings, which are often neglected, and doing constant debris cleanups would reduce flooding impacts during times when it does rain heavily.

When coming into Kihei, he said, “you can see all the kiawe growing in the drainage ditch — it’s all packed up.”

Other climate impacts like sea level rise and erosion are “not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said Molina, a Maui County Council member who holds the Makawao-Paia-Haiku residency seat. He suggested that the county needs to consider a managed retreat plan and move away from shoreline development.

Establishing a county facilities district to give tax responsibility to the property owners that develop in flood zones or shorelines is another possible idea.

Homelessness

Homelessness is another issue in South Maui, which has no permanent shelter, unlike West Maui, which has one, and Central Maui, which has two.

Molina said he would support funding to establish structures, like tiny homes, and work with large landowners to come to a lease agreement, purchase land or potentially turn to unused county property to create “communities for our unsheltered because we certainly can’t leave them behind.”

“And of course working with nonprofit agencies that could help to address this problem,” Molina said. “It’s going to take all of us collaborating to address this serious problem, which continues to escalate.”

Bissen hopes to pursue a program with the state Department of Transportation in converting old rental car lots in Kahului into safe overnight parking spots.

Working folks who have cars, but no homes, could park there overnight, shower, wash their clothes, recharge their electronic devices and “have some place where they can restore their dignity,” Bissen said.

“I would hope that we could have a similar program in South Maui if we could find an area where we could allow people to have a safe place where they can sleep at night,” he said. “I think it’s against the law to sleep in your cars, however, if we could make a change to that to allow under certain circumstances and situations by providing a safe place, I think that would be a start. . . . I think we need to be creative and work together.”

Victorino said he’s in agreement with creating safe zones for the unsheltered, but if reelected, he would continue to advocate for and expand the “very important” and much-needed wraparound services and programs for those in need, such as medical and mental health care.

Figuring out who makes up the homeless community is the first step to understanding and tackling the issue of homelessness, said Bell.

“We need to figure out who these people are first, whether they have mental health issues, drug addiction, alcoholism; we need to group them together first so we can figure out what we need to do to help them,” Bell said. “Some people are just comfortable being homeless and I don’t think that’s alright either, leeching off of us, our hard taxpayer money. . . . The last category I would establish would be those who just had a stroke of bad luck, you know, maybe they lost their job recently or they can’t pay their mortgage so they’re on the streets and maybe they just need a place to take a shower, rest their head at night, a hot meal.”

A passionate topic for Kay, she agreed with the ideas of safe parking lots and the current outreach efforts that provide food and wraparound services to the homeless; however, she emphasized the need to help the unsheltered folks who often go unnoticed.

“We definitely need to do more and I think we need a better assessment of what’s really going on and what kind of numbers we’re really looking at, and have better intake, so that we can determine what people need, and not assume that everybody has a substance abuse problem or mental illness issue,” said Kay.

Cesspools, ocean pollution

Candidates also touched on cesspools and septic tanks as it relates to ocean pollution and health impacts to wildlife and humans. Molina said that it’s critical to “address the problem now.”

“They say our environment is our economy, but as someone who has grown up here, I remember when the fish were plentiful and the ocean was much more healthy. It really hits heavy on my heart to see what is happening to our oceans,” he said.

When it comes to converting cesspools to septic tanks Upcountry, Molina said it’s important to help longtime property owners and generational families in subsidizing their costs.

While Kay is careful about government spending, she also hopes to find funding to help better dispose of waste.

“This would be a priority of mine and it would fall under the umbrella of integrated resource management, which sees all the connectivity of all the different waterways,” Kay said. “I’m not big on government spending, but I know we can find the money from somewhere by eliminating waste from somewhere else, but I definitely would back a subsidy or a low-interest loan to help owners replace the cesspools.”

Addressing these issues will take some resolve, said Victorino, who is still looking at ways to interconnect the sewer systems in South Maui, convert to resource water to supply the hotels and agriculture and create green zones to prevent brush fires.

“We have a plan of action right now,” he said.

Bell noted he doesn’t have all the answers on how to get sewer lines to the 2,000 residents in Maui Meadows and other residential areas in Kihei with a large number of the remaining cesspools and septic tanks, but if elected, he will have a “good team around me” and will “do my best” to come up with a game plan.

Bissen also agreed on the need to support landowners in making the transition and other funding for infrastructure.

“The county has the responsibility to control the pollution, you know, for the unique beauty of our island, including taking care of the coastline,” Bissen said. “We are learning that there can be harm to the environment by (having cesspools) and we are going to have to make the change. . . . I think everybody agrees that it’s time for us to use the better technology that’s out there.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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