by Andrew Walden
Not a single building permit has been granted within the Lahaina burn zone since the August 8-9, 2023, disaster. In fact, there have been no building permit applications turned in for the burn zone since that day. That’s the word from Janna Wong of the Building Permits Division, County of Maui.
If there is a plan to keep property owners from rebuilding what they lost, it is working.
The Lahaina burn area is almost entirely small house lots and commercial properties. Maui County Emergency Management reports 2,207 structures damaged in the fire with 86% residential and 9% commercial. The historic 34 room Pioneer Inn and the 14 room Plantation Inn are the only hotels reported burned.
Allowing property owners to get to work rebuilding on their small lots is the best guarantee that Lahaina will not be gobbled up by eminent domain and turned over to resort developers.
The opposite is happening.
Homeowners are being made to wait outside the burn zone while politically connected 8(a) companies under investigation by the FBI scoop up a $52.5M contract for ‘toxic’ material removal.
Insurance adjustors have been kept out of the burn zone.
Civil Beat, September 29, 2023, reports:
Insurance executive Mahealani K. K. Strong, executive agent and owner of Insurance Associates in Lahaina, said the decision to shut down the fire zone has prevented insurance adjustors from visiting properties to assess the extent of the damage they suffered. That’s meant that claims have been left pending for months while survivors wait for answers on how much they will be granted.
At the hearing and in a subsequent interview, Strong said that at least 44 insurance adjustors arrived on Maui within days of the fire, “ready to rock,” and that she attempted to establish her office as an insurance hub for their work, to help get claims settled more quickly.
But she said local officials would not allow her to use her undamaged office, located on Kupuohi Street in upper Lahaina, and that they ignored her pleas to allow a group of adjustors wearing protective gear to enter the burn site in a bus. She noted that the adjustors were all disaster specialists with experience operating in hazardous zones.
Instead, she said, while officials rebuffed her calls and emails, pointing the finger at other agencies as the source of the slowdown, hundreds of survivors have been left to wait. She noted that political leaders have been allowed to tour the disaster site but that adjustors have been kept out.
At one point she pushed her way into the county’s emergency operations center hoping to find someone who could help her, she said, but never got a reply from numerous officials to whom she explained the situation.
Strong said that at least six insurance adjustors from the mainland told her they had never before seen a burn site locked down in this way and had never before been prevented from doing their work in a timely manner.
Fire-scarred Sonoma County, California grants property owners the right to rebuild, even with 100% loss from fire or flood. But the Maui County Council has passed no such ordinance. As a result, common law applies.
What does common law allow property owners? A local attorney explains to Hawai’i Free Press:
If property is damaged less that 50%, the owner may repair, even if the structure is not in conformity with the existing zoning and other restrictions (for example, when the zoning has changed since the time of the original construction).
If the damage exceeds that 50% threshold, the usual rule is that there is no right to rebuild/repair a structure in such a way that does not conform to the present regulations and restrictions. Depending on the applicable zoning and other regulations you may be able to build *something* but that something may not be the same structure that was there before. Or you might not be able to build anything, depending on what regulations apply.
The Sonoma County building permits division website contains the following Q & A:
Q -- Can my house be rebuilt if it is destroyed by fire or flood?
A -- Yes, any legal dwelling unit destroyed by fire or flood can be rebuilt.
Can Governor Green’s ‘Housing Emergency Task Force’ go on record making the same statement?
Can Maui County?
We asked the Maui Mayor’s office and the Maui County Building Permits Division. Here is their response:
“As of right now, we do not have any process put into place. We are hoping to hear back from our administration on what the procedure will be.” -- Janna Wong, Building Permits Division, County of Maui.
That was in late August. Two months later, Wong tells us they are still waiting.
August 24, 2023: Do Lahaina Property Owners Have the Right to Rebuild?