Volcano businesses concerned the new vacation rental law will hamper recovery

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald

    Shelly Carvalho clears a table Sept. 11 at Lava Rock Cafe in Volcano.

While Volcano is getting back on its feet after the 2018 Kilauea eruption, vacation rental operators fear the county’s new vacation rental law will force the community to its knees again.

The new law, which goes into effect April 1, will prohibit certain short-term vacation rentals outside hotel and resort zones. Currently existing vacation rentals in the excluded zones will need to apply for a nonconforming use permit by the end of September in order to be allowed to continue to operate.

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While the law has been controversial around the island, it is especially so in Volcano, a community in which dozens of vacation rentals are the backbone of its economy.

During a Thursday meeting of Volcano business owners, under the auspices of tourism advocacy group Experience Volcano, many expressed concern and confusion about how the bill will affect the community.

“It worries me, but from a delayed perspective,” said Chris Becker, co-owner of Volcano vacation rental At the Crater’s Edge. Becker resides on the premises of his business, which makes it a “hosted” vacation rental and is exempt from the upcoming law.

However, Becker said he does not expect the exemption granted to hosted rentals to last, a sentiment echoed by others at the meeting.

More broadly, Becker said the requirements placed on rental operators in order to apply for the nonconforming use permit might cause smaller rental locations to slip through the cracks. Should that happen, Becker said, it could cause a snowball effect that would weaken the entire community.

“If the pool of rentals dwindles, people will find other places to go,” Becker said, adding that would have negative effects on local restaurants and attractions.

To apply for the nonconforming use permit, owners need approved building, plumbing and electrical permits, proof of property taxes, certification for parking, verification of notices given to all neighbors within 300 feet of the property, and must comply with a range of “good neighbor rules” that include noise limitations. Any rentals that continue to operate without the permit might be fined as much as $30,000.

Others at the meeting discussed possible ways to spare Volcano the effects of the law, including rezoning the community as a resort zone. However, the consensus appeared to be that Volcano’s unique appeal derives from its quiet and secluded nature, which would be disrupted by such a rezoning.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing ways to market Volcano as an attractive destination in order to stimulate tourist activity after the extended shutdown of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park last year because of the Kilauea eruption. While some compared Volcano’s appeal to artists and nature lovers to the tourist marketing of Sedona, Ariz., others said the mood and aesthetic of the community — one person referred to it as a “sense of peace” — is inherently unmarketable.

While attendees at the meeting, including County Councilwoman Maile David, said Volcano’s brand of tourism is inherently different from that of Kailua-Kona or Hilo, the need for new marketing is vital for a community that has only just regained footing after its primary attraction, the national park, was closed several months.

Lucretia Worster, owner of HiLife Media and Rentals, said business has slowly been recovering since the park’s reopening.

However, Worster said, fewer visitors are making long-term reservation plans, with more people booking stays in the near future. Becker agreed, speculating that visitors might still be concerned about the long-term safety of the area.

Fortunately, the extended partial shutdown of the federal government, which ended Friday, has not significantly affected rentals in Volcano, Worster said. While thousands of federal workers were furloughed and federal services were closed nationwide during the shutdown, the national park remained partially open throughout.

“The park staying open is a lifeline for us,” Worster said, although she added the portentous phrase “for now.”

Although the federal government reopened the day after Worster’s comments, it could shut down again Feb. 15.

Ira Ono, president of Experience Volcano, said the confusion about the shutdown has not helped the community’s recovery, while deadlines to address the vacation rental bill are approaching quickly.

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“We’re limping along, for now,” Ono said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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