Condo conversion law
needs changes


The Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled that the city has used a flawed system in prescribing lease-to-fee condo conversions.

WHEN the City Council approved an ordinance allowing condominium lessees to acquire fee-simple ownership, it was following the state Legislature's lead in providing for such lease-to-fee conversion of free-standing homes. However, the Council tried to draw a distinction between owner-occupants and absentee condo owners. The state Supreme Court has noted that the ordinance was badly phrased, and the Council should correct the flaw.

The court's ruling could cause problems for 32,000 lessees who seek to buy fee-simple interest in their condominium homes. Absentee landlords, who are less motivated to make such purchases, could block the process for others simply by not applying for conversion.

The Hawaii Land Reform Act of 1967, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in 1984, allowed lessees in a development tract to acquire land ownership if at least 25 or more than half of them applied to purchase the lots beneath their houses. The law treated all lessees the same, regardless of whether they lived in their houses.

The City Council extended the lease-to-fee conversion process to condominiums on Oahu in 1991. However, it prescribed a different eligibility for lease-to-fee conversion of units in an apartment building, defining "condominium owners" as owner-occupants. The original draft of the ordinance called for conversion if at least 25 or at least 50 percent of the "condominium owners" in a building applied to purchase the fee-simple interest. Somewhere down the legislative path, the latter part of the wording was changed to "owners of 50 percent of the condominium units."

That changed everything, because it dropped the phrase "condominium owners," which carried the all-important definition. Thus, the state Supreme Court ruled this week that a condo building cannot be condemned by the city and become eligible for conversion, under that provision, unless at least half of the condo owners apply -- regardless of whether they live in their units.

Although tailored differently, the state law and city ordinance had the same goal: improving the plight of homeowners -- not absentee landlords -- who had been deprived of the ability to own the land on which their homes were built. The City Council tried 11 years ago to make that intention explicit, but the attempt was inadvertently flawed or deliberately torpedoed. The ordinance should be clarified.



New status boosts
security department


President Bush has proposed a cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

CREATION of a new Department of Homeland Security will not create an impenetrable shield at America's borders, but it should integrate an assortment of security-related agencies that now are spread throughout government. Nor is President Bush's proposal -- as Sen. Ted Kennedy cautioned against -- "shifting the deck chairs of the Titanic." It is a sensible approach to providing for the nation's security needs.

Some members of Congress proposed a cabinet-level position when Bush appointed Tom Ridge, then the governor of Pennsylvania, to be his homeland security adviser last October. Ridge was assigned to coordinate 46 federal agencies in trying to prevent a further attack on U.S. soil, but he lacked authority over any of them. Democratic senators wanted Ridge to be a Cabinet member so he could be compelled to testify before Congress. His present status is merely advisory.

Congressional oversight is not the reason for creation of a new department. Instead, it is aimed at bringing together numerous agencies that have been relegated too often to secondary status in their present bureaucracies. They include the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service, Treasury's Customs Service and Transportation's Coast Guard, along with its new agency, the Transportation Security Administration. In addition, it would coordinate information from the FBI and CIA, connecting the kinds of dots that were adrift prior to Sept. 11.

The new department's budget would be only one-tenth of what Bush is proposing for the Pentagon and less than he wants spent on the Education Department. However, the reorganization proposal is certain to create turf wars involving the eight departments where the agencies are situated and the 88 congressional committees that have jurisdiction over them.

The department's creation could affect the oversight responsibilities of armed services committees that include Sen. Daniel Akaka and Rep. Neil Abercrombie. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, where Sen. Daniel Inouye sits, may lose areas of oversight. A response more logical than protecting turf would be for Congress to reorganize itself to fit.


Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, Publisher

Frank Bridgewater, Editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
Assistant Editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, Assistant Editor 529-4762;

Mary Poole, Editorial Page Editor, 529-4790;
John Flanagan, Contributing Editor 294-3533;

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