Someone else’s trees would have to create a “clear and present danger” to a neighbor before the county could step in, under amendments to a bill considered Tuesday by the County Council Environmental Management Committee.
The bill makes it easier for the county to remove unsafe trees from private property, and to place a lien on the offending property if the owner doesn’t pay for removal.
The measure, Bill 64, was advanced by an 8-0 vote to the council, with the bill to be refined with further amendments at the council level. The changes are intended to make a bill addressing problem trees, in particular the invasive albizia, less draconian, following concerns raised by council members and the public.
The county already has a similar ordinance for refuse and undergrowth on unoccupied lots. Bill 64 would add unsafe flora to the list and extend removal to occupied lots. It also lets an adjacent property owner make the initial complaint to the mayor, rather than a majority of adults in a 500-foot radius of the offending property, as is current county code.
Puna Councilman Zendo Kern, the bill’s sponsor, and Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille withdrew their amendments after a lengthy discussion. Kern plans to further amend the bill at the council meeting.
Proponents say the bill is needed, because absentee landowners are letting their albizia trees grow out of control, posing dangers to neighbors when the massive trees drop limbs on other people’s property.
“I personally attended the last hearing on Bill 64 in Hilo and was astonished to hear a few people speak against the bill. In almost every case, the person dissenting on this measure misunderstood the intent of the bill,” said Eileen O’Hara, Hawaiian Shores Community Association president.
“The purpose of this measure … is to relieve the citizens of this island from the increasing threat of physical harm and property damage that could cause extensive financial hardship.”
But Glenn Bousquet, testifying from Pahoa, said the measure will make it hard for people to buy and sell property. He questioned whether buyers would be warned that property they are interested in could be subject to mandatory tree removal. Removing a single albizia tree can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000.
“Are we going to criminalize everyone when they’re living in Canada and they buy a lot in Hawaii?” he asked.
But Tim Rees, testifying from Hilo, said applying an ordinance aimed at unoccupied lots to occupied lots could run afoul of state law.
“The state Legislature has drawn a bright line between occupied and unoccupied lots,” Rees said.
Kern’s amendment, which he plans on improving before reintroducing, would make it harder for a neighbors to file frivolous complaints. It would require owners of a new home built too close to an existing stand of trees used for wind blocks, boundary markers or ornamentals to seek other legal remedies.
If an individual files three unsubstantiated complaints against the same neighbor, that individual would be prohibited from complaining about the same issue again.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, had a problem with the term “clear and present danger,” however. He suggested it be changed to “imminent,” as “clear and present danger” has a constitutional definition that could “muddy” the issue. He asked Kern where he picked up the phrase.
“From a movie,” Kern responded.