Council considers vegetation removal bill


A bill aimed at curbing the invasive albizia tree in East Hawaii has residents of other areas worrying about an overreaching county government that could clear occupied lots of unpopular plants and bill the owners, placing a lien against their property if they don’t pay.

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.

“If a neighbor is not going to be a good neighbor and get it done, it shifts to the county,” said Deputy Public Works Director Brandon Gonzales, whose agency would enforce the bill if it passes.

The County Council Environmental Management Committee on Tuesday delayed passage of the bill until amendments can be drafted to help limit its scope.

The bill sponsor, Puna Councilman Zendo Kern, said the purpose of the bill is to “motivate people to be more proactive with their tree issues.”

“There needs to be some way for lot owners to be accountable for dangerous trees on their property,” Kern added.

Among the proponents of the bill is state Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat representing Puna and parts of Ka‘u. Ruderman sponsored a resolution that passed this year’s legislative session, urging the state Invasive Species Council to implement a coordinated multiagency plan for control and eradication of the albizia.

Almost a dozen Puna residents testified in support.

“The problem with albizia is primarily in Puna,” said Rene Siracusa, president of Malama O Puna. “But if we wait too long, it will be a problem for other districts as well.”

Also supporting the measure is the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.

“One of the key elements of the bill is the authorization for the county to access and remove the unsafe vegetation if the notified land owner has not done so in a specified time frame,” said Manager Springer Kaye in a letter to the committee.

Kaye urged the council to immediately establish a fund for upfront costs.

“Considerations must be made in the implementation of this rule for residents who will not be able to afford the removal of hazardous vegetation,” he added.

Removing a single albizia tree can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, Kaye said.

Opponents worried about unintended consequences.

“Gil Robinson, testifying from Ocean View, said the county could be “opening a can of worms.”

“Feuding neighbors could engage the county,” Robinson said. “I just would rather have these issues stay a civil court matter.”

Hilo real estate agent Susan Lee Loy, opposing the bill, compared the albizia situation to the coqui frog problem.

“The county is not going out and invading private property to get the frogs,” Lee Loy said. “We all have the right to quiet enjoyment of our property.”

South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford recounted a recent uproar in her district when the state Department of Transportation started cutting jacaranda trees along Napoopoo Road. She said she’s not familiar with albizia trees, but she dislikes them already.

“Albizia is a nightmare. I think we can all agree to that,” Ford said, adding she has concerns about the impact of the project on the county budget. “Chances are we aren’t going to get that money back unless we foreclose.”

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille also worried about the bill being too broad. She asked if there was a way to make sure trees were removed because they were a safety hazard, not “just something that is undesirable.”

“I’m a big tree hugger,” Wille said, adding she hoped she wasn’t going “out on a limb on this.”