The struggle to protect Molokai land
By Melissa Kelsey
From construction and dumping to operating transient vacation rentals, it is no surprise to many Molokai residents to see neighbors undertaking projects without the proper permits. With little information available on how to obtain permits and few consequences for violations, the process of following the law seems almost unnecessary. But for some residents, observing flagrant violations, such as filling in ancient Hawaiian fishponds, has led them to question whether or not the government is doing its job to protect Molokai’s communities and natural resources.
Disturbing the Peace
Recently, an east end resident observed a neighbor cutting down trees and dumping them into a fishpond. He said that as a result of the close-knit community on Molokai, many residents are hesitant to file reports. Some residents have fears of repercussions, and some simply do not want to disturb the peace.
While Maui County does not accept anonymous complaints, they do pledge to keep the source of each complaint they receive confidential, according to Maui County Planning Director Jeffrey Hunt.
Molokai Staff Planner Nancy McPherson thinks that for a community as small as Molokai, the largely complaint-driven enforcement system may be precisely the problem. She said the way the island’s enforcement system currently works is that if a Molokai resident observes a permit violation, they have to take the initiative to file a form called a Request for Service. Once each month, a staff enforcer comes to Molokai from Maui to investigate the Request for Service forms she has received. After legally assessing the situation, she charges the violator fines until the problem is corrected or the proper permit is obtained.
One Molokai resident believes the county should spearhead a more proactive enforcement system for violations to make the system run more smoothly.
“Permits should be visible from a public right-of-way,” he said, explaining his views that a county inspector should be able to drive down Molokai roads and check to make sure that construction and other projects are visibly permitted.
Enforcement is Expensive
While Hunt recognizes the largely complaint-based enforcement system on Molokai, he said the county lacks a more proactive approach of enforcement because there are not enough financial resources to hire personnel to do the inspections.
“There is so much work to be done already that there is no time,” said Hunt.
One Manae resident suggested using revenue from violation fines to hire more enforcement officers. He added that currently, fines go back in to a general county fund instead of being designated for a specific purpose.
Another way the county can help is to find a way to make the process of obtaining a permit easier in the first place, according to McPherson. She said although the permitting process is important to protect Molokai’s resources, doing things legally in the current system is not only confusing, but expensive for many residents.
“Making it easier for people to do the right thing is a better approach than punishing them for doing the wrong thing,” said McPherson.
McPherson said she thinks it is important to revise the system before precious natural and historic resources on Molokai are lost forever.
“If the only time we are able to act is when someone files a Request for Service, we are missing too many things,” said McPherson. “If you are bulldozing, you could be destroying something forever.”