Time and land slip
away from desperate
Kaneohe family

A couple faces $100,000 in repairs
and risks losing their home to
an eroding riverbank

In one night the Rileys lost four feet of their back yard.

During a January rainstorm the inches-deep portion of Heeia Stream behind their house turned into a raging rapid that washed away a sizable section of their 25-foot-tall embankment. Because the Rileys' property extends halfway into the stream, they have not been able to secure aid from the city or state to repair the bank.

Both the Rileys and government officials say the couple's ordeal -- similar to that of at least one other Kaneohe family -- should serve as a cautionary tale to other homeowners.

"Although we want to try to help ... using those public funds on an individual's private property is a concern," said state Department of Land and Natural Resources Deputy Director Ernest Lau. "I don't want to downplay the situation for the Rileys. ... Like with anything else, you should just know what you're buying."

That leaves the young couple in a bind.

They cannot afford the $100,000 repair job to fix the stream's bank, which now sits only 18 inches from their home's foundation and puts their Auna Street house in danger of collapsing. Their homeowner's insurance will not cover the repair, either.

But the city has told them that if their house falls into the stream -- which is possible if their property is not shored up soon -- they will be charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for cleanup.

In a March letter to the Rileys, Stewart Engineering Inc. President Kenneth Stewart wrote that "the existing undermined bank creates an immediate and potential threat of catastrophic failure to your house that could result in sudden collapse."

The Rileys, who live in the home with their infant child, have talked with and met with state and city officials a number of times since January to explore ways of getting help. They have also gone to their City Councilwoman and legislators, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state Civil Defense.

The Rileys have even researched the possibility of applying for a federal grant that would cover half the costs of repairing the bank if the remaining expenses are paid for by either the city or the state. The couple has offered to cover the expenses for the city or state if either agrees to sponsor them.

In the Rileys' most recent conversation with Lau and other DLNR administrators, on April 15, officials said the state could not participate in the program -- even if it costs them no money -- because it sets a precedent and makes the state potentially liable for the repair work and similar occurrences in the future.

The state Department of the Attorney General also ruled on the issue. In an April letter to the Rileys, Deputy Attorney General William Wynhoff said that "even if we assume that the homeowners come up with the 25 percent local cost share so that the department will not have to expend public funds, the department is still not authorized to act as local sponsor."

He cited the Hawaii Revised Statutes, which say that if channels or streams are privately owned, "then the private owners are responsible for maintenance."

He said the section "does not explicitly prohibit the state from intervening in stream bank maintenance." But, he wrote, "If the department acted as local sponsor and thereby assumed responsibility for stream banks, doing so would (at a minimum) be contrary to the spirit and intent of the law."

The state Constitution, he said in an earlier letter to the couple, further prohibits the state from "spending public money for private purposes."

The city has not yet decided whether it is able to participate in the federal program, though city officials have already said they cannot help the couple with outright expenses.

The Rileys are scheduled to meet with the city Wednesday, and city spokeswoman Carol Costa declined to comment on the case.

"It's amazing that helping us would not be in the public good," said Dana Karasaki Riley. "We don't have the luxury of time. Everybody's been pointing fingers at everybody else. We keep going on wild goose chases."

Darrel Poland, who lives on Keala Road in Kaneohe, is in a similar situation. He lost about 2,000 square feet of his property during the course of about three months this past winter to erosion from Keahaala Stream, which runs behind his home.

His home's foundation is now visible, and fixing the problem could cost more than $100,000.

Officials said there is no clear cause of the problems at either Kaneohe properties, other than the winter's wetter-than-usual weather. Poland suspects that debris upstream has contributed to his bank's erosion, but that could not be confirmed with state or city administrators.

Poland's house -- like the Rileys' -- is also in danger of falling in.

"I went through every state or government agency," he said. "I've been basically told that whatever happens on these stream channels is the owner's responsibility."

And with each downpour, both Poland and the Rileys lose more land. "Every time it rains, more gets eroded away," Dana Riley said yesterday. "It's just little by little creeping up."


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