The following commentary was originally published in the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle on Oct. 21, 2023.
The fires that razed Lahaina on Maui have left Hawaii grieving the loss of life, property and heritage in that beautiful and historic town.
Now, as volunteers, government officials, and residents begin the task of cleanup and rebuilding, many people are asking: How should Lahaina be rebuilt? And who should rebuild it?
Some people have suggested the government prohibit Lahaina residents from selling their properties to people from outside the state. Others have floated the idea that a government board take charge of the reconstruction process. Most of the plans involve top-down commands.
But these suggestions, no matter how well-intentioned, ignore something fundamental: private property rights.
The families and individuals who owned homes and businesses in Lahaina should not have their property rights arbitrarily stripped away from them to satisfy the grand plans of some bureaucracy.
Cities and towns should grow naturally, with individual owners making their own decisions as to how to best maximize the values of their properties. Supplanting property rights with top-down plans would stifle these decentralized decisions and potentially result in a finished product that virtually nobody likes.
The real role of the state and Maui County should be to secure the rights of Lahaina residents to rebuild without government roadblocks slowing the process.
For example, the county should offer an expedited permitting process for businesses and homes damaged or destroyed by the fire.
Maui fire victims seeking to rebuild should also be exempt from the normal building permit fees. Repairs and reconstruction will not be cheap, so waiving these fees would help lower the costs.
Maui County is also taking steps to protect those whose properties were not completely razed by the fires. A bill under consideration by the County Council would allow the county director of finance to waive or reduce property taxes for those whose homes and businesses were damaged but not destroyed.
This would extend the county’s assistance beyond the emergency order that Mayor Bissen signed soon after the fires, which waived property taxes for properties that were destroyed in the fire but did not include damaged buildings.
Finally, the county should consider giving exemptions to destroyed or damaged Lahaina buildings that pre-date today’s zoning codes.
Many property owners might want to reestablish Lahaina’s historic feel with buildings that are built to the edge of the street, connect with adjacent structures and do not offer parking. But parking minimums, setback requirements and other regulations make it hard, if not impossible, to build in the same way that people built a century ago.
These suggestions related to permitting, property tax and zoning are not meant to tell Lahaina residents what or how to rebuild. Instead, they are intended to give them the option to exercise their property rights as they see fit.
By doing so, we could see Lahaina rise from the ashes in a way that truly reflects the wishes of the people who lost so much during that tragic early August conflagration.