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Kaimukī Residents Concerned 'Monster Home' Construction Taking Place; DPP Director Reviewing Plans

Construction Monster Home Demolition.jpg
Casey Harlow / HPR
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The owners of 3615 Sierra Drive were fined by the Department of Planning and Permitting last week for demolishing the two onsite properties without a permit. Neighbors say the crew failed to take proper safety precautions, and they are concerned of the environmental and health risks associated with the illegal demolition.

Honolulu's Director of Planning and Permitting is reviewing a controversial residential construction case on Oʻahu. It involves the demolition of structures on a 19,000 square foot lot, and the construction of what neighbors fear will be a monster home.

"It's a shame," said Patrick Watson, a long-time resident of Sierra Drive in Kaimukī. "This isn't the first time we've heard about monster homes coming up in the area. And there seems to be no stop to them."

Watson is one of dozens of neighborhood residents raising the alarm because they suspect a monster home is likely being built on their street.

Last week, the owners of 3615 Sierra Drive, Yi Sun Chiu and Christy Lei, tore down two onsite structures - a five-bedroom home originally built in 1932, and a three-bedroom home first built in 1958.

"We discovered there was a network of property owners, realtors, architects, engineers and contractors who came together and started this monster home phenomenon around the island. And these two property owners were front and center."
Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, HI Good Neighbor

Witnesses told HPR the crews did not take any safety precautions for the dust.

"These are all super old homes — in the '20s. There’s lead paint issues, there’s asbestos, there’s all kinds of stuff," Watson said.

According to public records, Honolulu's Department of Planning and Permitting approved permits to demolish the two onsite structures. However, DPP gave the owners a "triple fee penalty" - totaling $366 - for demolition without a permit. City Council Chair Tommy Waters, who represents Kaimuki, says the owners never picked up the permits from DPP. It is mandatory for any construction project to have the permit on hand.

The owners now plan on constructing three, two-story structures - each covering an area of more than 2,900 square feet. Under current city law, that is allowed.

"The idea that a single-family dwelling . . . is now potentially going to be redeveloped for three homes or apartments . . . that's insane," Watson said. "This wasn't designed for this kind of use. So, from the infrastructure stress, the parking, the noise, amount of people - no more than tripling here per house - like this stuff has got to stop."

A History Of Building Monster Homes

This isn't the first time Yi Sun Chiu and Christy Lei have owned property in residential neighborhoods, only to create large homes. Community groups like HI Good Neighbor, which advocates for stricter regulations on monster homes and illegal vacation rentals, have been keeping track of resident complaints and monster home developments on Oʻahu.

Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, a member of HI Good Neighbor, says the group kept seeing the same set of names on the permits of properties with monster homes.

"We discovered there was a network of property owners, realtors, architects, engineers and contractors who came together and started this monster home phenomenon around the island," said Dos Santos-Tam.

"And these two property owners were front and center."

Council Chair Tommy Waters says he's been keeping track of what's going on in his district.

"What's happening is these particular owners are buying homes around Kaimukī, knocking them down, and building these monstrosities," he said. "I've been chipping away at this, over the years that I've been in office, to try to rein in what these folks are doing."

HPR was unable to reach owners Chiu and Lei for comment.

Stricter Laws or Better Enforcement?

The Honolulu City Council has passed several measures cracking down on the permitting and construction of monster homes. Chair Waters has led the charge on most of the bills. Among the laws are Bill 79 (2018) and Bill 90 (2020).

Bill 79 (2018) set new limits on the construction of monster homes. While it added restrictions that effectively ban large monster homes, some plans that were submitted before the law took effect were able to continue through the DPP approval process. It became law in May 2019.

Bill 90 (2020) aimed to close that loophole, by going after the permits. The law, which was signed in February 2021, would void permits pending review, and set an expiration date for approved permits.

Chair Waters says Bill 90 may not be applied to the Sierra Drive project, because, according to DPP's website, it was initially submitted and approved in 2019.

"Except for not getting their building permit, the plans seem to qualify under the law," he said.

Waters says he's also upset that monster homes are continuing to be constructed. But acknowledges that addressing monster homes is very complicated, because Oʻahu is facing a housing crisis and he doesn't want to introduce measures that prevent construction.

But he has some ideas.

"One of the things that came out of my meeting with constituents was introducing a bill to bar construction of these contractors, if they have three strikes," Waters said. "If they get three notices of violation, then they should be barred, at least for a year, from developing any properties."

Waters is also considering other options, such as revising the city's tax code for owners of multiple properties and adding further restrictions to the floor area ratios of proposed home plans.

Waters has asked DPP director Dean Uchida to review the matter. Uchida was unavailable for comment at the time this story was published. But the department issued the following statement:

The property at 3615 Sierra Drive is in a zoning district of R-5 with a lot area of 19,066 square feet, which allows up to four units on the property. To date, we have approved building permits for three structures. The applicant will need to pay the permit fees before we issue the permits.

The DPP responded to two complaints of demolition work without a permit at that location. An inspection determined that demolition had begun and we issued a notice of violation on June 8. The owner has until July 8 to obtain a permit in order to correct the violation. If no permit is obtained, the NOV will be referred for a Notice of Order and civil fines. An initial fine of $50 will be assessed and daily fines of $50 would follow until the violation is corrected. We also will charge a triple fee of $366 for the demolition permit because the work began without a permit.

Kanani Padeken originally was assigned to this project, but she was removed from the project and it was reassigned to another plans examiner. Padeken is no longer employed by the Department of Planning and Permitting. The building permits for the single-family dwelling units were approved earlier this month. Part of the delay in the approval was the reassignment of the project from one plans examiner to another. The applicant has also paid a $26,200 park dedication fee, which was required because multiple dwelling units are proposed for a single residential district zoning lot.

Padeken, who recently plead guilty to federal corruption and bribery charges, initially reviewed the plans for the Sierra Drive property in late 2019.

A DPP spokesperson told HPR the director is reviewing the matter. It is unknown whether Bill 90 would be applicable to the Sierra Drive permit.

"[City Council Chair Tommy] Waters said he created bills that can be enforced, and they can be fined up to $6,000 a day, which is a fairly stiff penalty, but how do you actually enforce that? That rhetoric to me says 'Oh, you might be able to get fined, but you might be able to skirt it, too.'"
Patrick Watson, Sierra Drive resident

For neighborhood residents, and community groups, the illegal actions by the property owners not only show a lack of respect of neighbors, but also the law. They hope the city will do a better job enforcing current laws and acting swiftly to prevent future illegal actions.

"In this case, where they proceeded with demolishing the existing homes on the property without having a demolition permit. It shows that they are in the business of simply ignoring the law," Dos Santos-Tam said.

"And it suggests that it's not simply a matter of new laws, but making sure we strongly enforce the existing laws, and make it hurt. If somebody violates that not only once, but on multiple occasions, we need to find a way to make these penalties matter."

For Watson, he would ideally like the project come to a complete stop, but acknowledges that it is difficult to do. Instead, he would rather see the city improve its enforcement of current laws, and keep track of repeat offenders.

"Chair Waters said he created bills that can be enforced, and they can be fined up to $6,000 a day, which is a fairly stiff penalty, but how do you actually enforce that?" he said. "That rhetoric to me says 'Oh, you might be able to get fined, but you might be able to skirt it, too.'"

"If you know this person has done this time and time again, then you should be able to flag that individual and prevent them from doing it again - by not allowing them to have any kind of permitting for this kind of thing ever again."

Watson acknowledges that laws take time to create and implement. But he is getting more frustrated construction of big developments in neighborhoods like
Kaimukī continue, but there is little action.

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