Council takes up tree- clearing bill


Amid concerns that clearing unsafe trees on private property could eat into the county’s road maintenance budget, the Hawaii County Council on Wednesday amended Bill 64, then scheduled a final vote for Oct. 16.

Bill 64, aimed primarily at the invasive, fast-growing and brittle albizia tree, allows the county to clear occupied or unoccupied lots and recoup the costs from the landowner, if the landowner doesn’t clear the land within 30 days of a notice from the county. The county can take this action to clear “refuse, uncultivated undergrowth or unsafe flora,” according to the bill.

Among supporters of the bill, which is sponsored by Puna Councilman Zendo Kern, are state Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Pahala, and Springer Kaye, manager of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee. 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.

“This commonsense measure encourages good citizenship, including the concept that property owners share in the responsibility of managing costs related to their properties,” Kaye said.

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.

The amendment clarifies how the new law will be implemented and makes major changes to how trees will be cleared from occupied lots to make it consistent with state law. Hawaii statutes prohibit liens against occupied property for the purpose of clearing vegetation, so the county would, instead, clear the land and then sue for its expenses if the landowner doesn’t pay.

Owners of unoccupied lots would still face liens against their property for nonpayment.

Expenses that could be recouped from owners of both occupied and unoccupied lots include compensation of employees, leasing or rental of equipment, equipment repairs and replacement, medical expenses, legal expenses and technical expenses.

Even if the county expects to be reimbursed, there is generally a lag between spending the money and getting paid back. In addition, a certain percentage of lot owners will be unwilling or unable to pay.

That concerned several council members, who wondered where the money would come from.

“We are going to be spending and hoping we can recoup the amount we expend,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille. “There are a lot of needy roads, so I am trying to hold onto funds.”

Brandon Gonzalez, deputy director of the Department of Public Works, said the county currently spends from $70,000 to $200,000 per year clearing trees.

In comparison, removing a single albizia tree can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000.

Gonzalez didn’t have an estimate on how much the new program would cost, and was requested to bring numbers to the next meeting by South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford.

Kern, though, believes the program won’t cost as much as feared because landowners will step up to the plate.

“I believe it will cause people to take action on their own,” Kern said.