As eruptions continue, land swap eyed for hundreds of evacuees

Published: Jun. 12, 2018 at 8:33 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 13, 2018 at 12:28 AM HST
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For nearly six weeks, thousands of evacuees have been sleeping in tents or shelters. (Image:...
For nearly six weeks, thousands of evacuees have been sleeping in tents or shelters. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Rivers of lava flow from fissure no. 8 toward the sea off Kapoho. (Image: USGS)
Rivers of lava flow from fissure no. 8 toward the sea off Kapoho. (Image: USGS)

PUNA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - An old idea to relocate part of Puna is getting a new push amid ongoing eruptions, which have destroyed at least 700 homes on the Big Island.

Supporters say in simplest terms, it's a state land swap. But they prefer to call it a relocation plan.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, of Puna, says with 500 to 1,000 people suddenly homeless on the Big Island, out-of-the-box solutions are needed.

Here's how he says the land swap would work: "If you had an acre in Leilani that was overrun by lava, state takes possession of that," he said. "You, in exchange, get access to another lot in a safer place, ideally pre-lava value of that lot is what the state credits you and it could go toward purchasing this new lot in part or in total."

He says a state law enacted after the 1960 tsunami devastated Hilo enabled the state to relocate people from oceanfront to higher ground.

"It was used again in the late 80s in Kalapana and a couple times on Oahu so it's not unique and it has happened before," said Ruderman.

The plan comes as eruptions just keep going on the Big Island, nearly six weeks after they started.

Thousands fled their homes after the first fissure opened in Leilani Estates on May 3, and many are sleeping in tents or evacuation shelters.

And some are now learning just how tough rebuilding.

Kathy Emery lost her home and farm off Highway 137 near Green Mountain. The home, which Emery said came together $500 at a time, was built without permits.

"We couldn't get insurance because it's lava zone 1 and no one would insure us," she said. "Banks wouldn't loan you money because you couldn't get insurance, so you had to have your own money to put into it and so without a loan or insurance, I built an unpermitted structure."

The county hasn't said how many of the 600 to 700 homes that were claimed by lava didn't have proper permits.

A number of property owners in the area didn't get proper permits because of the struggle to secure affordable mortgage insurance. Permits were typically only needed to secure loan financing or electricity service.

Meanwhile, Ruderman said he's identified two parcels of state agricultural land that could be ideal for relocations: 3,800 acres makai of Highway 130 between Hawaiian Paradise Park and Hawaiian Beaches and more than 5,000 acres mauka of the highway adjacent to Ainaloa.

Jon Olson, who lost his Leilani Estates home, says the relocation idea has been talked about for years.

"We had discussion groups about future planning for this event. It wasn't a question of whether. It was a question of when," said Olson, former chair of the Puna Community Development Plan.

Gov. David Ige says the state is looking at residential development in East Hawaii.

"The broader conversation is about what do we do long term for all of these people have been displaced, where would we want to direct growth, how do we envision those who are displaced with a new place to call home," he said.

Because the plan is still in the idea stage, details like who and what kind of properties would qualify still have to be worked out.

County planning Administrator Michael Yee said all ideas are being considered.

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