Hawaii Governor Says ‘Tricky’ to Stop Outsiders Buying Land

Hawaii’s governor conceded it would be tough to stop outsiders from buying up land on Maui, despite his concerns that thousands could be permanently displaced following last week’s devastating wildfires.

(Bloomberg) — Hawaii’s governor conceded it would be tough to stop outsiders from buying up land on Maui, despite his concerns that thousands could be permanently displaced following last week’s devastating wildfires.

Governor Josh Green, a Democrat, and Attorney General Anne Lopez are exploring a moratorium on people outside the state trying to buy Lahaina properties. But Green said that will be difficult.

“The governor is not allowed to simply say a resident of Hawaii can buy this house, a resident from California can’t buy this house,” Green said Thursday in an online discussion hosted by news source Honolulu Civil Beat. “This is a very tricky legal question, and as much as we’d like to snap our fingers and just do it for local people, it’s hard.” 

Officials in the state have come under scrutiny over whether enough was done to safeguard Lahaina residents from the deadly blaze, and now rebuilding efforts are being closely watched. On Thursday, Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Herman Andaya resigned, citing health reasons. Andaya this week defended not using the state’s public warning sirens to alert Lahaina residents about the fire.

The blaze — Hawaii’s deadliest known natural disaster — killed at least 111 people and displaced thousands. As of Thursday, 58% of the area had been searched, according to a statement from County of Maui officials. 

At least two of the fires had distinct origins, investigators have concluded. A drone with infrared capabilities was being sent out to identify hot spots in the upcountry, as several ongoing fires were increasingly being contained. 

Hawaiian Electric Co. said it has restored power to more than 80% of its customers who lost electricity in the blaze last week. The utility has come under criticism for not turning off power despite weather forecasters’ warnings that dry, gusty winds could create critical fire conditions. The state’s attorney general said she was opening an investigation into how authorities responded to the wildfires. 

The utility’s muni bonds have plunged since the fires, and Moody’s downgraded its ratings, according to a statement on Friday. S&P Global Ratings cut Hawaiian Electric Industries to junk earlier this week.

“We are seeking advice from various experts,” the company said in a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday. “The goal is not to restructure the company but to endure as a financially strong utility that Maui and this state need.”

Building Back

Green said that rebuilding Lahaina will require breaking through stalemates over new construction and water use that created a housing crisis on Maui long before the blaze. “We can’t just stop building again,” he told Civil Beat senior reporter Stewart Yerton. “Maui’s going to have to build back in some way.”

Read More: Hawaii Governor Doesn’t Want Developers Buying Burned Lahaina

The governor plans to address residents Friday evening to outline a path forward. He said Thursday the state owns a 400-acre site outside Lahaina that could be used to build housing for the displaced relatively quickly and cheaply, while the county owns another lot nearby. Modular or prefab houses could be another way to lower construction costs, he said. 

Some 950 survivors from the Aug. 8 fire have been placed in hotel rooms vacated by tourists, while another 500 people have moved into Airbnb rentals. But neither is a long-term solution. And rebuilding in the decimated town can’t start until federal workers clear the land of toxins such as asbestos and heavy metals, a process that could take several months and $500 million to $750 million, according to Green.

Green said he was wrong to have opposed some housing projects during his years as a state legislator and said moving forward after the fire will require the state to have an honest discussion of its future needs, including new construction. About 14,000 Hawaii residents move away each year, he said, driven out by housing costs. 

“Rich people will always be able to find a way to buy a one-off house or a condo,” he said. “People like us won’t.”

–With assistance from Brian Wingfield.

(Updates with Hawaiian Electric status and filing from seventh paragraph.)

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