County Councilman Aaron Chung has drafted a bill that would allow a farmers market to be set up temporarily at Mooheau Park in downtown Hilo across from Hilo Farmers Market.
Chung, who represents the downtown Hilo district, told the Tribune-Herald on Wednesday he hopes to fast-track the measure through the council.
Keith De La Cruz, owner-manager of the popular open-air market, is being fined $4,000 a day by the Department of Public Works Building Division for alleged noncompliance with county building, zoning and fire codes.
“I want to make it clear, we’re not looking to replace the farmers market,” Chung said. “The county shouldn’t be in the business of running a farmers market and we’re not trying to get into the farmers market business. We just want Mr. De La Cruz to hurry up and comply with the code. We just want to provide a vital feature to our downtown Hilo community while he’s doing what he needs to do.”
Barett Otani, Public Works spokesman, said the county started assessing the fines March 19 upon the return receipt of certified mail notification to De La Cruz — $1,000 per day of continued noncompliance for each of four tax-map-key land parcels the market occupies. As of Thursday, fine assessments reached $100,000.
The market closed down for a day on March 25 to take down a tarp and some wiring the county said didn’t meet fire codes. The previous day, De La Cruz informed vendors they would have to buy their own 10-foot-by-10-foot pop-up tents to erect and remove daily for their businesses.
“(C)anopy tent (“quick”) structures as some are currently erected and collapsed (removed) daily do not comply with code,” Otani wrote in an email.
“Permit applications for permanent structure(s) have not been submitted to date and said to be forthcoming,” said a separate email from the county Planning Department.
Despite inclement weather for much of the day, the market was a hub of activity Wednesday. Merchants’ tents continued to abut the sidewalk along Mamo Street, in violation of a code requiring 10-foot setbacks, and brushed against the wall of Reuben’s Mexican Food, another code violation.
“We’re monitoring compliance on a daily basis,” said Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, on Wednesday. “An inspector is there every day, taking pictures. But we, together with Councilman Aaron Chung, we’re trying to figure out the feasibility of setting up temporarily — while Keith is getting his permits together — at the Mooheau Park.
“We’re having a meeting with all the departments next Monday to analyze any kinds of issues, concerns with that idea.”
Chung said he was invited to the meeting, but hadn’t decided if he would attend.
He added enforcement of county codes is up to the administration and he “cannot, in good conscience, try to suggest to the administration that they don’t follow the law.”
“We cannot pick and choose the circumstances in which we enforce the laws. We have to be consistent,” Chung noted. “But from a practical standpoint, as far as I know, since 1999, since Keith started running the farmers market, I don’t know of any fires that occurred at that place, and I don’t know of any injuries that have occurred, except those that occurred on the county sidewalk.
“From a practical standpoint, the code is sometimes too restrictive. But it is the law, and unless we change it, it’s going to remain the law. And we are sworn to uphold and enforce those laws.”
Takemoto emphasized the county administration has been “trying to work with (De La Cruz) for one year.”
“Closing the market was absolutely the last resort. Because we couldn’t get his attention, we had to take this action,” he said. Takemoto said De La Cruz’s application for a 180-day temporary permit “was submitted but rejected.”
“It didn’t meet the requirements,” he said. “I think he’s working with his architect to get that re-submittal prepared.”
De La Cruz said Thursday he and his architect are “processing our permits as best as we can right now.”
“We’ve taken care of, I’d say, 99 percent of everything,” he said. “We’ve had several meetings with the county, and it seems like were on the same page to get the market back up in compliance. The vendors are doing as best as they can, as well, given the situation. It’s a difficult transition, but for the most part, they’ve been resilient.”
De La Cruz said he plans to soon submit permanent plans for open structures with permanent roofs, to be completed by December.
“That’s our goal. We have three properties to cover, so it’s going to be a challenge. But given the situation, that’s what we need to do right now.”
Takemoto said the Building Division is “looking at if those can be approved.”
“The biggest obstacle was how to meet the special flood hazard zone code, because he’s using a zone that’s subject to high waves and tsunami. There are strict building requirements,” he said. “… Because what he was proposing was some kind of dual use, where there would be a roof without walls, which would be used for parking at some times and by vendors at other times. Building has to figure out if that was a permitted use.”
Barbara Heintz, a regular market customer, said Wednesday that current conditions for shoppers after the tarps’ removal have changed for the worse.
“In the rain, it just doesn’t work,” Heintz said. “It’s sad because it’s the best in the state, and now, we’re going to have to have all these issues. It seems like there’s blame on both sides. I just hope they work together and get it solved.”
Frank Lucero of Divine Hawaiian Coffee Co. said vendors are putting in extra tents to cover walkways for customers.
“Truthfully, though, we haven’t even been tested yet as far as real Hilo rain,” Lucero said. “I think it’s going to take a little while for people here at home to come back in to us.”
Tomas Belsky, an artist who sells his works at the market, said “everything’s up in the air.”
“The merchants here are at the whim of politicians and cross-currents of legalisms,” Belsky said. “It seems it could’ve been done with a little bit more delicacy, this whole situation. And, of course, one of the arguments is that everybody ran out of patience on both sides. It’s unfortunate, because I’ve always believed … that this could be a main drawing force to Hilo.”
Belsky was accompanied by friend John Ervin, who noted the market’s prominence in travel magazines and television shows.
“Whenever they show Hilo, they always show the farmers market. Hilo’s identity is the farmers market,” Ervin said. “There are markets like this in many countries, and they’re permanent. They have permanent walls and ceilings. And people come in and it works great. Why can’t it work here?”
“It’s not a good situation,” added Belsky. “We can do better than this. Hilo deserves better than this. There’s certainly an opportunity to do better.”
De La Cruz apologized “for the big inconvenience this has caused to our vendors and customers.”
“I pray that we can get this resolved in the most judicious and feasible way,” he said.
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.