Hilo Farmers Market ordered to remove tents and tarps

HILO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii County officials have ordered the Hilo Farmers Market to remove its tarps and tents after more than a year of trying work with the manager to address several fire safety and zoning violations.

Despite the significant change, Hilo Famers Market Manager Keith De La Cruz confirms the market will continue operating and reopened Monday morning at 7 a.m. as its normally scheduled to.

In a statement posted on the Farmers Market website over the weekend, De La Cruz wrote: "I have been working in good faith to resolve notices of violations received from the County since June 2017. It has been a long and complex process. The County has since issued an Order to remove all existing tarps immediately."

De La Cruz says the county ordered the removal of the tarps and tents five days ago and warned De La Cruz that if he failed to respond he could face $4,000 in fines each day that they remain up. De La Cruz said vendors began removing all tarps and tents from the arts and crafts side of the market on Saturday, March 24. The market then closed Sunday, March 25 as all the remaining tarps and tents were cleared from the produce side.

According to De La Cruz, vendors will have to purchase their own pop-up tents, which will need to come down at the end of each market day. De La Cruz says the plan is to continue using pop-up tents until he can secure new tent permits and hopefully funding for a permanent roof structure.         

 "The county has issued an order to remove all existing tarps. So we're complying with that order," said De La Cruz. He says that given the Hilo Farmers Market location, he needs special Shoreline Management area permits in order to have permanent Farmers Market tarps or a roof structure. He says this requirement has delayed and complicated the process.

"Part of the major problem was the review of our application, so that's why I feel it's unfortunate that they decided to issue this five day order after being here in Hilo for over 30 years. It's very unreasonable and very unfortunate," said De La Cruz.

But Mayor Kim says the county has worked with De La Cruz for more than a year now -- and even assigned staff to help him bring the market into compliance, but he failed to do so. The mayor says he's received calls from vendors who claim they were given less than a day's notice to clear their tents -- if true, Kim says that's unacceptable.

"I will not turn this into a war of government and him. The violations are clear. The government has tried to work with him. And the people who are suffering are those vendors who were not given adequate notice," said Mayor Kim.

Kim says the violations the Hilo Farmers Market faces have included: zoning issues dealing with infringement of the public sidewalk; electrical safety citations raised by the Hawaii Fire Department; and a failure to abide by a 10-foot clearance zone between the market and its neighbors.

 "I think the violation primarily, the most important one, is that he was putting up a permanent business for years and that is definitely a violation," said Kim.

When pressed for clarification, De La Cruz was not clear about when vendors were told they would need to clear out their tarps and move into temporary pop-up tents instead. He did say that since the recession of 2008, he has been struggling to secure financing to build a permanent structure and do away with the tents and tarps that are currently being used on the site. He says he has held off on raising vendor rent for more than eight years, but was forced to increase it by 3 to 5 percent in November of 2017.

The Hilo Farmers Market is open daily at the corner of Kamehameha Avenue and Mamo Street with at least a dozen farmers, retailers and crafters, but twice a week on Big Market Days there are more than 200 vendors.

Earlier this year, USA TODAY named the Hilo Farmer's Market one of the five best things to do in Hilo.

De La Cruz says he has no plans to try to move the Farmers Market to a different location. He wants customers to know that it remains open and he appreciates their patience and understanding.

"To the vendors, I apologize deeply for the inconvenience they've gone through. I know a lot of these people and they're good people and they work hard and I feel for them. I don't like the situation that we're in because it creates a great inconvenience to their livelihoods and to their families," said De La Cruz. "To the county, I pray that we can get this resolved as soon as possible in the most reasonable way so that we all can move forward together. I love Hilo and I love the people here and I love what I do -- and I can only hope that the county can see that and help us get through this as soon as possible."

Mayor Kim says De La Cruz knows what he has to do to bring the Farmers Market into compliance and the county has provided him with a clear outline of the steps he needs to take to address his violations.

"Not only this administration, but others, have been trying to work with him in trying to make sure he's in compliance and we just couldn't get the cooperation we needed," Kim said.

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