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Molokai Commission to Vote on Short Term Rentals

Molokai continues to teeter on the balance between the economic benefits from tourism and the desire to maintain the island’s pristine and undeveloped flavor. The Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC) is in the process of addressing whether or not to approve a legal avenue for homeowners wishing to turn their home into a short term rental, also known as a transient vacation rental (TVR).

At their meeting last week, commissioners debated on a draft ordinance from the Maui County Council that would establish permitting procedures for short-term rental homes on Molokai, Lanai and Maui.

“There is a real desire to establish some regulations and also work on enforcement,” said Gina Flammer, staff planner with county, calling the ordinance a “high priority” issue for the county council.

Currently, there are only two legal operations on Molokai, while many homeowners rent their homes without the proper permits. As the procedure stands now, those wishing to legalize their rental home must apply for a conditional use or special use permit, a lengthy process that has no rules specific to TVRs.

“This ordinance attempts to set out standards [for TVR operation and permitting],” said William Spence, Maui County planning director, who attended the MoPC meeting. “Now, there’s a lot of head scratching.”

The proposed ordinance would set out a more mainstream procedure to legalize operation of a short term rental, and is based off the existing Bed and Breakfast (B&B) ordinance for Maui County. The main difference between a B&B and a TVR is that for a TVR, the owner does not have to live on-island. The property would be managed by a local representative.

Dana Harris of Molokai Vacation Properties testified before the MoPC in favor of the ordinance, speaking to the economic benefits short term rentals offer the island.

“Short term rentals have become an important thread in our community,” she said. “[They] fill a much needed niche for those looking for lodging.”

Susan Savage, a broker with Friendly Isle Reality, however, disagreed.

“I clearly understand the benefits, but I live here, and I’m affected by loud neighbors,” she said, explaining her frustrating experience trying to file a complaint against a neighboring TVR owner. “Until we have enforcement as a reality, not just on paper, this bill is not appropriate,” she added.

Commissioners echoed her concerns.

“You’re putting the cart before the horse, saying we’re going to work on enforcement,” said Commissioner Lori Buchanan. “It’s not my job to police my neighbors.”

“I’m the first one to admit that enforcement lacks,” acknowledged Spence, adding that if the department gets complaint from a neighbor, “we let the person know,” occasionally send an inspector, and issue the violating TVR owner a notice of warning. “Fines are negotiable,” he said, adding that violators are fined relative to the severity of the offense.

Flammer pointed to the growing trend toward alternative accommodations and the generation of economic activity through legalized TVRs. But she said the planning department does have concerns about the effect it could have on the housing market, as well as the consequences TVRs could have on the character of Maui County neighborhoods.

“We don’t want to see neighborhoods changed,” she said.

Flammer said in the proposed ordinance, all Molokai TVR applications would be reviewed by the planning commission and granted on a case by case basis.

Several commissioners were concerned about gaps in the draft ordinance as it is written. Zhantell Dudoit wanted to make sure there are no loopholes for corporate ownership of TVRs on Molokai. Buchanan said the cultural aspect was left out of the bill.

“I see this as a great asset to the community if done in the right way. I don’t think the way it’s addressed now [makes it an asset],” said Dudoit.

Resident DeGray Vanderbilt testified before the commission, calling the TVR ordinance a “monumental bill.” But he advocated that action should wait until after the community plan update is implemented. Commissioner Ron Davis agreed.

Spence said realistically, the community plan won’t be ready for years, even though the process is already underway. “If you put this ordinance off till [the updated plan] is adopted, there won’t be legal [way] for short term rentals until then.”

Spence said the ordinance will ultimately be voted on by the Maui County Council. He said can add recommendations or suggested amendments to the council, and it’s up to them whether or not to act on it. “They could say this ordinance does not apply to Molokai,” he said, in which case the current procedures for TVRs would continue.

MoPC commissioners voted to defer the issue until their next meeting on July 13, held at the Mitchell Pauole Center at noon. 

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