The tarps and tents covering the Hilo Farmers Market were removed during the weekend by county order because of zoning and fire code violations, and vendors were told Saturday they had to purchase their own pop-up tents that need to be assembled and removed every business day.
The county is assessing a $4,000 fine for each day the iconic open-air market continues to be in violation of county codes, said Keith De La Cruz, the owner and manager, on Monday.
He said the county issued notices of violations and gave him only five days to rectify the situation, which involves violations of the 10-foot setback required from the sidewalks on Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street, as well as from the wall of Reuben’s Mexican Restaurant.
Other violations included the tarps and tents themselves, an unpermitted extension cord and a string of overhead lights, De La Cruz said.
“We took care of many of the electrical ones; we took all that down,” De La Cruz said. “So we’ve been working on the permit part for the tarps, as well as a permit for a permanent structure for the farmers market, a scaled-down version. It’s been a long, complex process, but we were making headway. And I guess they decided, the county didn’t want to continue on that time frame, so they sped it up and issued the … order to take down the tarps several days ago.”
De La Cruz said he and an architect attempted until Friday to convince the county to reconsider the fines, adding he’s worked “in good faith” with the county. He described the fines as “unreasonable.”
“Thirty-plus years we’ve been there, and they give us five days to take it down and impose this incredible fee,” he said. “The sad thing about it is the amount of people that are affected by it — our vendors, especially. They’re hardworking people that are dedicated to coming to the market each week. For us to get side-struck like this is very disheartening.”
De La Cruz sent a message to the market’s vendors Saturday to inform them their tarps, tents, poles, produce boxes and other items were to be removed by day’s end.
County Managing Director Wil Okabe, Mayor Harry Kim’s top administrator, pointed to a number of plans De La Cruz submitted throughout the years to erect a permanent roof over the market.
“This has been going on for 16 years, from Harry Kim’s first term and from the past administration’s, Billy Kenoi’s term,” Okabe said. “… We’ve been trying to work with him all those years, and it had to come down to this, the $4,000 a day. This is the third plan. Originally, what he was going to do was make some kind of structure. The plans were very elaborate, with two stories and a covered walkway.
“We’ve been trying … to get him up to code, and three plans later, this is where we’re at. And this is a situation where this particular farmers market is nationally known as one of the best throughout the country.”
Accolades garnered by Hilo Farmers Market include recognition in 2012 by the Mother Nature Network as “one of the top U.S. farmers markets every food lover should visit” and a listing this month in USA TODAY as “one of the five best things to do in Hilo.”
According to De La Cruz, his original project, estimated at about $5 million, was scrapped despite a special management area permit issued by the Planning Commission because of the economic downturn during the Great Recession. His second plan, in 2015, was to build a 20-foot tall prefab structure costing about $1 million.
He said he’s now “scaling down the scaled-down version.”
“I’m financing this personally,” he said. “Since the recession, banks have become really, really strict on their commercial guidelines. (Property) values haven’t risen substantially in Hilo, and my income hasn’t risen substantially, either. The reason is, it’s based solely on our rents. And I can’t increase rents as fast as other places can or as high as other places can.”
Okabe said De La Cruz missed a recent permit deadline on one of four land parcels the farmers market occupies, and incomplete applications were submitted for the other three.
“Because it was incomplete, the Planning Department and the (Department of Public Works) have to go and review that,” Okabe said.
De La Cruz called the situation “a little frustrating.”
“We’re trying to work through it in good faith with these three departments here,” he said. “On one hand, one’s giving me the order to pay up fines; the other one’s requesting more information on my application that they got back in June.”
One vendor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called the short notice given to vendors to provide their own tents “unfair,” but said most see no recourse but to go along with it.
“There’s a tight-knit community of Filipino vendors, and they’re not going to say anything,” the vendor said. “… They’re so scared that they would get kicked out or wouldn’t get another spot to rent, so they don’t complain about anything. They grumble to each other about it, but they would never say anything publicly.”
Kim also addressed the short notice given vendors. “They’re the ones that are being hurt by this, more than the landlord,” he said.
“I find that unacceptable, as far as I’m concerned, because we’ve been dealing with this guy for almost a year or more, and before that, more … with private meetings and trying to assist in any way we can,” the mayor said.
Okabe said County Councilman Aaron Chung, who represents the district, asked if county property could be used for a market.
“We are looking at another site … to provide another avenue to give these vendors an opportunity … in downtown Hilo,” Okabe said. “… But the only property we have in this area is the (Mooheau Park) bandstand or the county parking lot across the street.”
Okabe called the situation “unfortunate.”
“We understand that for the vendors, this is part of their income. But we are trying our hardest to try to make it fair for everyone to follow the code,” he said. “We expect the homeless to follow the code, that they cannot just put up a tent and leave it there on the beach or any property. We have to follow the same thing for vendors, as well.”
The vendor questioned the timing, a week prior to the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hilo’s busiest week of the year.
“The vendors, as well as Keith, want to keep Hilo Farmers Market as a popular destination for tourism as well as a great place to shop for locals, not just for produce, but for the other things that are sold there,” the vendor said. “And we’re just worried about the ramifications of what this county order are. None of us understand why the county has required this to be removed. And we all just want the same thing, for people to be happy — both the vendors and the public. For the vendors, this is our livelihood.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.