As Maui Weighs Countywide Vacation Rental Ban, Molokaʻi Is Divided On Impacts

Mar 2, 2020

Moloka'i residents are known for their fierce desire to protect the rural character of their island community, says Councilwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez. A ban on short-term vacation rentals there awaits Mayor Michael Victorino's signature.
Credit Eric Tessmer/Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons 3.0 License

Molokaʻi may become the first island in Hawaiʻi where new short-term vacation rentals are banned and old ones phased out. The Maui County Council quietly approved a measure last month to do all that and it’s now awaiting Mayor Michael Victorino’s signature. This comes as Maui planners consider extending a ban to the entire county.

Chances are you haven't heard of Maui County Bill 22. It would place a zero cap on short-term rentals on the island of Molokaʻi – meaning none would be allowed and existing operations would be eliminated within three months. 

The proposal has drawn mixed reaction from Molokai residents and vacation rental owners.

Molokaʻi resident Mahina Poepoe says she’s concerned the influx of short-term rentals could change the character of her island community.

“You know, it takes up long-term housing potentially. It raises the land taxes when these properties are caught up in the cycle of investment property sales. It's forever taken out of the realm of being affordable for a local to buy ever,” she said.

Poepoe’s cousin and former short-term rental owner Zelie Duvachelle has a different take on the bill.

“I think it’s a bit extreme. I mean I think the nice thing to do would have been to at least let the people who have the permits keep them. I mean 17 on the whole island isn’t that many, really,” Duvachelle said.

Poepoe says a major concern is that 16 of the 17 permittees do not live on the island or even in the state.

“The feeling that we’re used to having in our rural communities, which is knowing who your neighbors are, just being able to have that safe feeling, was kind of removed.”

Maui County already has caps on short-term vacation rentals in place ranging from five for Maui Meadows to 100 in Kīhei and Makena. 

“This is something that the Molokai community has been asking for a number of years now,” says Councilwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, who introduced the Molokaʻi measure.

“As you know, we have a reputation of fiercely protecting our home. We want to ensure Molokai is still the Molokai we grew up with for our childrenʻs children,” she said.

Greg Mebel with the Maui Vacation Rentals Association said most short-term rental owners on Molokaʻi were blindsided by the proposal. 

“The people who got these permits, they went through a lot to get them,” said Mebel. “They were promised by the county to be able to operate. They made investments around that promise. And they are being told that they don’t have that anymore.”

He said an outright ban on the growing industry could push Molokaʻi back into a “wild west” type of situation, where owners would be tempted to operate underground.

“And so the idea of changing neighborhoods is something that we’re concerned with as well,” said Mebel. “I’m just not sure if not having a way – a path to regulation – achieves that goal.”

Councilwoman Rawlins-Fernandez says short-term rental owners do not need to go out of business. They can apply for a bed-and-breakfast license but they would need to live on the property. And for Duvachelle, who lives and works on Maui, that is currently not an option.

On Friday, the Maui Planning Department is holding a public meeting on a proposal to extend a short-term vacation rental ban countywide. The 3 p.m. meeting is scheduled at the Kalana Pakui conference room, 250 S. High St. in Wailuku.

The Maui News reported that the move to consider a countywide ban is aimed at addressing illegal rental operations in the county.

Despite harsh penalties for operating unpermitted vacation units, Maui County saw an increase in January of 27.2 percent in its supply of vacation rentals compared to the same month last year, according to data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Maui posted the largest vacation rental supply, with 265,400 unit nights, of all counties, the authority said.

The Maui Department of Planning maintains the county "continues to make significant progress in curbing illegal vacation rentals," pointing to its 2019 vacation rental enforcement report. Inspectors have issued more than 180 warning notices and over 80 violation notices last year, the report states.

Whether that's sufficient given the thousands of transient accommodations units in the county has been the subject of debate.

Meanwhile, Maui Councilman Riki Hokama has introduced a measure that would ban vacation rentals on Lānaʻi.

“The residential character of our island community is jeopardized when vacation rentals operate without regulation or oversight,” said Hokama in a statement. “I look forward to working with the Lana`i Planning Commission, the Planning Department, and my colleagues to create a better framework for transient accommodations. In the meantime, a moratorium is needed.”