Wednesday | January 18, 2017
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Trouble with the trees

Council members gave a preliminary nod to code changes that would allow the county to cut down trees on occupied property if the trees pose a danger to public safety or a neighbor’s property and the lot owner refuses to mitigate the dangers.

“I’m not seeing this as the big lychee tree that’s been there for 10 years or 20 years,” Puna councilman Zendo Kern said, adding he introduced the measure to deal with a situation in which “the person could have taken care of that issue with a machete and they don’t. It becomes an issue that’s huge.”

Of particular concern, especially in Puna, is the albizia tree, which grows quickly and is fairly brittle, causing the trees to topple easily. Kern said the bill amends the code, which already allows neighbors to file complaints with the county about dangerous plants on vacant lots, to report trees on occupied lots.

The council’s Environmental Management Committee, during a meeting Tuesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center, voted unanimously to send the bill to the Environmental Management director and the Environmental Management Commission. Several members said they supported Kern’s initiative, but said they worried about unintended consequences from the measure.

“What I’m worried about the most, some of the residents on fixed income, they are trying to balance their electricity bill and food and there’s this tree on their property that they can’t spend thousands of dollars, now they have that bill to deal with,” Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan said. “Now they have this additional bill they didn’t have before. At the same time, we do have to think about public safety.”

Brenda Ford, who represents portions of South Kona, Ka‘u and Puna, said she also worries about giving problem neighbors a new tool to harass others in their neighborhood.

She also expressed concerns about Kern’s original measure, which would have required the mayor’s office to respond to complaints, and asked what impact the changes would have on the Department of Public Works, which will conduct the inspections and remove the trees.

Deputy Public Works Director Brandon Gonzales said the department could pick up the work, adding he supported the bill. The county code already allows the county to go to an unoccupied lot after attempts to contact the landowner and negotiate for plants posing a danger to be trimmed or removed.

Council members, during the Agriculture, Water and Energy Sustainability Committee, unanimously approved Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille’s resolution asking Mayor Billy Kenoi to consider installing photovoltaic systems on as many county facilities as possible.

William Ralston, the county’s energy coordinator, said he understood the desire to see more solar power generation, and a subsequent decrease in the amount of money the county spends on electricity. But, he said, doing that might just pass a larger financial burden on to Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s poorer customers, who cannot afford to install a photovoltaic system.

“Photovoltaics are a great idea,” Ralston said. “Maybe not the best idea. Wind farms at the Department of Water Supply are better.”

Those wind farms, which are guaranteed to generate 3 megawatts of power at least 60 percent of the time, will create direct savings that the Department of Water Supply can pass along to water customers, Ralston said.

Ford said she agreed that not every county facility is a good site for solar power generation, but she did not agree with Ralston’s assessment of the impact of the county saving money with solar power.

“Ultimately when we reduce the cost of the county’s expenses, we are saving the taxpayers from a potential rate increase on our taxes because we’re not getting enough revenue to maintain a level of services,” Ford said, adding that even people who rent homes are paying property taxes, they just pay it to their landlords, who then pay the county.

Finance committee members postponed a vote to create a property tax task force, and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi withdrew a motion he had filed asking for a legislative audit of the county’s Elections Division.