By Kelly Moran
Puna, east of Hilo, is the fastest-growing district on the Big Island, and in the state. After the upcoming elections, Puna will have not one but two County Council members. But there is an issue in the Puna district that will come up before the Council, no matter who is elected, and it has implications for other districts on the island.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Council members permitted private developers to subdivide enormous tracts of land into one- and three-acre lots with mostly agricultural zoning. That rural designation allowed the developers to sell lots without having to provide water or sewage services, or pave the roads. So those lots were very cheap, and if you could afford a car, you could afford to own land. In 1969, you could buy three acres of trees and ferns, on a dirt road in Puna, for as little as $1,500 – about the price of a new VW Bug.
Image: The most vocal of the residents who want County road services live in the subdivisions that border Hwy 130, especially those in Paradise Park.
The Council’s thinking was that farmers would live and work there, that retirees (or hippies) would settle there, and that everyone would pretty much live off the land, catch rainwater in a tank, dig a cesspool … and not need to drive very much. But that was a huge mistake. Some working farmers, homebody retirees and isolationist hippies do live there, but in the past 40 years, it’s mainly *commuters* who have moved into those relatively inexpensive subdivisions. Their only route to Hilo is on two-lane State Highway 130, between Pahoa and Kea’au, and it is jammed with traffic during weekday drive-to-work and drive-home hours. The State is only now letting contracts to widen Hwy. 130 to four lanes, and it’ll be years before that work is completed.
But it’s those unpaved subdivision roads – the ones that most residents live on – that are the County’s problem. They are muddy in the rain, dusty when the weather’s dry, and pocked with potholes year-round. But they are still privately owned, no longer by the developers, now, but mostly by the various homeowners’ associations, none of which can afford to pave them or even keep them up to a high level of maintenance, for which their members would have to assess themselves.
And that’s the core issue: residents feel they should *not* have to assess themselves to maintain or improve their roads, since nobody else has to. The County collects gasoline and property taxes, island-wide, a portion of which is earmarked for the County’s Highways Division for work on County roads. But what’s collected from the real estate in those Puna subdivisions, and from the drivers who live there, when they buy gas, can not by law be used to maintain or improve privately-owned roads.
Residents are understandably huhu (angry), but only the County Council can change the situation. It’s unlikely that the Councilors will actually vote to acquire those roads; more likely, they will allocate funds from some other purpose, and find a way to contract for road improvement services, at least in limited areas within the subdivisions, such as those that are zoned for “village commercial” or light-industrial uses, and that therefore benefit an entire community. Whatever the Council decides, though, will have Island-wide implications, since Kona and Ka’u, too, have private subdivisions dating back to the ‘60s, and residents who are equally vocal about not getting services in return for their taxes.