Crack-Down on Town’s Container Businesses
For years, Molokai businesses have been supported by the use of containers. A handful of entrepreneurs in Kaunakakai run their businesses solely out of the metal structures, while others depend on them for storage overflow. However, county law requires containers to have a building permit, among other conditions, and many businesses are in violation. Now, with a recent crack-down on enforcement, some businesses have to move or close shop.
Dusty Dancy, owner Dusty’s Power Equipment, has been running his business out of a container next to Hayaku Gas and Go for about two years. Now, he has to move his business out of town to Mahana Nursery because of the recent enforcement. He said the move will cost him a lot of business – and he had to do it in about two weeks, he added.
“They ought to give me more notice before they put me out of business,” he said.
Anthony Fukuoka is building inspector for the County of Maui on Molokai, who handles enforcement of building regulations.
He said enforcement on Molokai is usually based on complaints. Blatant violations are “hard to overlook” he said.
When The Tobacco Shack opened shop in a container about two months ago, “a lot of people started asking questions,” said Nancy McPherson, Molokai staff planner. That triggered the enforcement process for all container businesses.
Now, container businesses and landlords will soon be hit with fines for non-compliance beginning 30 days after the notification last month. That could amount to $100 per day, plus as much as $1000 initial fines for not having a building permit or a certificate of occupancy, two of the requirements for container businesses.
“I really feel for these people,” said Fukuoka. “I know how complicated this [permit process] can be.”
“We hear every day how bad Hawaii’s economy is,” said Ka`ili Adachi, owner of The Tobacco Shack, another business owner suffering from container enforcement. “Instead of helping out small businesses, they’re practically shutting us down,” she said.
Dusty’s Power Equipment and The Tobacco Shack are two of the businesses that are currently facing two violations, Fukuoka said – lack of a building permit and no certificate of occupancy (CO). A building permit is required of all containers around the island, even if used solely for storage. A CO is required if the container is being used for a business – which entails customers coming and going.
As part of the building permit processes, businesses in Kaunakakai town need a Special Management Area assessment, and must comply with Business County Town (BCT) zoning requirements, which primarily dictate the aesthetics of businesses, said Nancy McPherson, Molokai staff planner.
“Most people don’t know they exist,” she said. BCT requires storefronts to look “western and old-fashioned because that’s the style we’re trying to preserve in Kaunakakai.” From lettering and design on signs, to where windows are placed, BCT requirements cover every aspect of how a business looks.
“You basically have to camouflage your business,” said McPherson.
Dancy said he thinks the aesthetic requirements are unreasonable. “Look at the rest of the town – it’s an island port town. It’s unfair for them to come two years after the fact and say you gotta get out.”
There are some exceptions to the building permit requirement for containers, such as for agricultural-zoned land and temporary use for building and transportation purposes, Fukuoka said. But while the laws apply to all containers on Molokai, he is just focusing for now on enforcement of container businesses.
Because of the BCT requirements, he said proper permitting for container businesses is nearly impossible, adding that business owners would have to spend so much money camouflaging the container that they might as well just build a regular structure from scratch. Even so, building permit fees, violation fines, Special Management Area application fees, cost of architects and other expenses add up quickly. In addition, “it could be months, it could be years for the permitting process,” he said.
Still, Fukuoka said there’s hope for businesses being hit with violations. “For some people, it may be as simple as renting a part of an existing business – there are options,” he explained.
Fostering Local Business
Eddie Medeiros, who owns the land around Hayaku and Outpost Natural Foods, said he allowed container businesses on his property to help out local residents. “People came to me and wanted to start business and had no money,” he said. “I knew it was a risky endeavor.”
“I appreciate the time they had, but in the long run it turned out to be a poor business decision on my part,” he explained. “But the businesses are viable businesses today.”
Adachi’s six-month-old business had been operating out of a movable kiosk next to Imports Gift Shop before moving into a container less than two months ago, she said.
Now looking for commercial spaces that will take her business, Adachi said it’s hard to find. “Molokai commercial space is really limited and they’re very selective,” she explained. She does not plan to go through the permitting process – “it’ll kill us before we start,” she said. Instead, she said she’s looking for ways to work around existing laws.
Adachi has been in contact with the mayor’s office, and said she hopes other business owners will do the same. The law needs to be updated and shaped to fit Molokai’s needs, she said.
“I don’t know how they expect to improve the economy when the permitting process is so complicated and lengthy,” said Adachi.