Lahaina Fire Victims Could Build Temporary Homes In The Burn Zone If This Bill Passes

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The Maui County Council is moving forward with legislation to give displaced residents some “breathing space” for five years.

Maui fire victims could delay high home reconstruction costs while more swiftly returning to their scarred properties under a bill the Maui County Council is taking up Friday.

The legislation would create a pathway for property owners to build temporary dwellings on their land for up to five years.

“I just wanted to be able to give people some breathing space,” said council member Tamara Paltin, who represents West Maui and sponsored the bill. “We’re hearing a lot from homeowners, especially about the cost to rebuild.”

Hundreds of homes in Lahaina have been cleared of fire-related debris and are being prepared for rebuilding. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)Hundreds of homes in Lahaina have been cleared of fire-related debris and are being prepared for rebuilding. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)
Hundreds of homes in Lahaina have been cleared of fire-related debris and are being prepared for rebuilding. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2024)

The council’s Water and Infrastructure Committee passed the bill unanimously on June 6 with an amendment requiring county building officials to interface with property owners at the 3.5-year mark to remind them that their permit expires after five years. 

The Maui County Code currently authorizes building officials to issue permits for temporary structures for a maximum of 180 days, a time frame that Paltin described as far too narrow to be of any use to fire victims seeking an interim solution to rebuilding a home that for some is financially out of reach.

Lahaina residents are slowly starting to apply for emergency permits to reconstruct their homes using a new permit system implemented by the county in a bid to return residents to their properties as quickly as possible, a process anticipated to take years. 

Mario Siatris looks outside of the walls of his destroyed home Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Lahaina. Their homes and neighborhood were destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)Mario Siatris looks outside of the walls of his destroyed home Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in Lahaina. Their homes and neighborhood were destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Mario Siatris looks outside of the walls of his destroyed home on Mele Street. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

But some residents don’t have the capital ready to rebuild a home in today’s market.

Mario Siatris, whose century-old plantation house on Mela Street burned down in the Lahaina fire last August, said he’s eager to move back onto his property as soon as possible, even if that looks like glorified camping in a makeshift shelter. 

“I just need a place to stay and if it’s safe enough, why not?” Siatris said. “It’s home.”

Although he plans to rebuild his home eventually, he said he doesn’t have the money lined up to start the reconstruction process yet.

Council member Tom Cook, who is also a general contractor, said he supports the bill as a way to “bend and flex” the county’s building and permitting rules to help government be more responsive to people looking to reinhabit their land while they buy time to line up the investment it takes to construct a permanent home. 

“It’s striving to be as accommodating as possible to the residents who want to be able to live on their property and not be burdened, while also accommodating health and safety,” Cook said. “But they still have to get a permit.” 

A Continest temporary container shelter is raised at Ohana Hope Village Monday, April 8, 2024, in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)A Continest temporary container shelter is raised at Ohana Hope Village Monday, April 8, 2024, in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Temporary container shelters are under construction at Ohana Hope Village in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

The bill was introduced on May 21 by Paltin. She said she worked with Mayor Richard Bissen’s administration and county attorneys to broaden the scope of her original proposal.

The reworked legislation now applies to temporary structures other than dwellings, such as medical facilities. After the fire burned down Kaiser Permanente’s Lahaina clinic, it launched two mobile van clinics while working to open a temporary brick and mortar clinic on the grounds of the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort in Kaanapali. The legislation would help create a framework for this kind of emergency construction. 

Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin represents Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin represents Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui County Council member Tamara Paltin, who represents Lahaina and West Maui, introduced the housing bill. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The bill has also been widened to include geographies outside the burn zone. This change is meant to help facilitate projects like Ohana Hope Village, a modular home housing project for displaced fire survivors in Central Maui.

The legislation can only be activated during an emergency as dictated by a state or local emergency proclamation. The bill is meant to transcend the August 2023 wildfires so that it could be utilized during future disasters.

Structures permitted through the proposed legislation would need to satisfy county fire codes and be constructed in a safe manner. In severe weather, officials could call for the temporary structure to be removed.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to meet the entirety of the building code and it won’t be inspected,” Paltin said.

Maui County Council member Tom Cook talks with Council Chair Alice Lee after a committee meeting Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)Maui County Council member Tom Cook talks with Council Chair Alice Lee after a committee meeting Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Maui County Council member Tom Cook, a contractor, supports the measure. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

“The focus is more on meeting public health and safety standards so that if you’re going to live there there’s running water and there’s a portable toilet or something else where you can use the bathroom,” she added. “This is about creating more housing inventory now for this five-year period and then we can reassess.”

It’s still unclear whether property owners trying to access a temporary structure permit would qualify for the expedited permitting process recently created to hasten the pace of reconstruction in Lahaina. 

Paltin said she’s talked to the mayor’s administration about how having the temporary structure go through the regular permitting process could undermine the legislation’s value. The regular permitting process could take months, she said, while the expedited process created this year for permanent structures in the burn zone can be issued in as little as 14 days.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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