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Don't reward illegal B&B operators


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POSTED: Monday, September 21, 2009

At the upcoming Honolulu Council Zoning Committee meeting, the question of whether or not (and how many) overnight tourists will be booked into houses in our residential-zoned neighborhoods will be up for yet another vote. The meeting will be at 9 a.m. tomorrow in the committee meeting room at Honolulu Hale.

This “;special meeting”; is the umpteenth held on this subject over the past 4 1/2 years. One would assume that by this time the Council would have an acceptable bill — but this is not the case. No fewer than six versions of two bills (08-6 and 08-7), all somewhat similar, will be considered.

According to committee Chairman Rod Tam's office staff, the testimony time will be limited to one minute per three bills.

The two bills were unanimously shot down by the Honolulu Planning Commission last year after two lengthy hearings. Nine neighborhood boards, numerous community associations, Local 5, and Local 142 all oppose the expansion of these mini-hotel operations into our residential-zoned neighborhoods, for several solid reasons. But Rod Tam, Ikaika Anderson, Todd Apo, Nestor Garcia and other Council members are still aching to establish a new permitting process rather than figure out how to enforce existing laws against the thousand-or-more already illegal B&Bs and vacation rentals, which are openly operating and publicly advertising.

But the city still won't shut them down, or even fine them in most cases, even though they have sufficient authority to do so.

Six years ago, the city doubled the fees for the 1,000 grandfathered legal B&Bs and vacation rentals, allegedly to improve enforcement against the unlicensed. There was a little enforcement — for a while, but not much now, and the operators are again thumbing their noses at the city.

They are destroying Oahu's residential neighborhoods with a constant stream of overnight strangers, taking scarce housing out of the rental market, and competing with hotels that pay high taxes and decent wages with benefits to thousands of workers.

Please don't get confused; we are not talking about tutu renting out the spare room occasionally to make ends meet. It is also not about owner-operators. None of the bills specify that the owner or operator must ever spend the night at the site. The current illegal operators, and those lying low and waiting in the wings, are hoping to get this permitting process through the Council on owner-occupant tutu's nice, clean, tranquil neighborly image.

But those of us who have been struggling with this issue for a long time — some since 1989 — know that this is about utilizing low-overhead residential property, paying residential property taxes, and getting the garbage collected for free, with no security, few legal employees and usually no insurance on guests as homeowner's insurance typically does not cover commercial paying guests.

One of the most onerous of the six bills — 08-7 Bill 7 (2008), proposed CD1 (Version 2) — would reward existing illegal operators with an automatic temporary permit. It also requires the already-overburdened police to do the enforcement instead of the Planning Department's Enforcement Division. It also has no density limits — every house that met minimum requirements could become a B&B.

With the passage of any of these six bills, this industry will become so profitable and prolific that it will never be turned back. The time to step up and save Oahu's neighborhoods is now.

But what do we want, those of us opposing these bills? We want the city to protect our property rights by enforcing the zoning laws already on the books since 1989.

We have no faith that the city will match a new permitting system with improved enforcement; just the opposite. Once the new permit is granted and traffic flow in and out of the property is established, it will be impossible for neighbors or the city to know if the operator is observing the limits on number of guests, parking and noise.

However, if the city steps up enforcement, closes down the thousand-or-more illegals, and proves that it can effectively enforce the law for a couple of years, perhaps more overnight-owner-occupied and very limited B&Bs could be permitted in the proper zoning.

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Larry Bartley is executive director of Save Oahu's Neighborhoods.