County must redo Lono Kona sewer project hearing


The number of Lono Kona property owners protesting a public improvement district during a public hearing this week was too low to stop the project.

But errors in the notification letters county officials sent are forcing the county to redo some of the process, including reissuing letters and holding another public hearing.

Environmental Management Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd said Wednesday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which mandated the closure of large-capacity cesspools 14 years ago, should not have a problem with the delay.

“Their goal is to get compliance,” she said. “Our experience has been, they totally understand when there are snags.”

Through the improvement district process, the county will assess a fee on each property owner, based on how many single-family equivalent units the property has. Undeveloped properties will be assessed based on the land’s zoning, Leithead Todd said.

People representing 16.5 single-family equivalents, out of 247 listed in the project area, protested against the plan, she said. That’s not enough to stop the project. Funding is split between a $4 million grant and a $2.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Residents will repay the loan.

The assessment, about $9,900 per single-family equivalent, only covers the cost to bring lateral sewer lines to a property line. Homeowners are still responsible to pay for closing the cesspool on the land and to build the connection infrastructure on their land. That adds tens of thousands of dollars, Michael Wilson said.

“You’re asking a lot of people to pay a lot of money to satisfy a few people in violation of the EPA,” he said.

Wilson said he could build a septic system on his property for less than the cost of hooking up with the new system the county is proposing.

Not connecting to the system isn’t an option, Leithead Todd said, because the county code requires property owners to connect if the county builds sewer system lines in their neighborhood.

Other owners, particularly those with multiple-unit buildings, had approached the county to address the situation, because their properties were not big enough to accommodate the leach field needed for a septic system, Leithead Todd said.

Kai Craig, who owns a home in the Lono Kona subdivision, offered a straightforward reason for supporting the sewer improvements there.

“When I grew up here, we used to jump in the ocean to heal our wounds,” Craig said during a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday night. “Now, we jump in the ocean, we get staph.”

Craig referred to staphylococcus bacteria, which many believe is more prevalent in West Hawaii waters because of sewage runoff into the ocean.

Lono Kona subdivision has a number of large-capacity cesspools, on lots containing duplexes, apartments and condominium complexes. The EPA outlawed such cesspools in 1999, and ordered all remaining ones to be closed by 2005. Hawaii County has replaced some systems on its own but is using the improvement district process for this latest project. Creating a district passes some of the construction costs on to property owners.

The process to replace Lono Kona’s cesspools has been slow, gaining momentum only after one owner was fined $60,000 for failing to close his building’s large-capacity cesspool.

The improvement district process is a lengthy one, started last year, and it hit a snag last week, when county officials realized some of the notification letters they had sent to some property owners listed properties that were misclassified, Leithead Todd said Wednesday.

“In order to be fair to everybody,” county officials are reviewing those classifications, she added. “We had some units classified as single-family and they were either duplex or multifamily.”

She said she did not know whether the units were misclassified because property owners had made unpermitted improvements, adding dwelling units without notifying county officials. Because the letters must be reissued, the County Council will need to convene a second public hearing, similar to the one Tuesday night, to formally complete the requirements of the improvement district process.