They used to be called communes or co-ops or kibbutzim. Now they’re known by a whole new set of names: intentional communities, sustainable communities, eco-villages. At least 35 such communities exist or are in the planning stages on the Big Island alone. They vary wildly in some ways: from a fundamentalist Christian commune to a yoga-centered community to colonies of artists or circus performers. Some are attracting Baby Boom retirees or have the backing of dot-com entrepreneurs. But the core principles of most remain similar to those espoused when in the days when ”hippies” colonized Taylor Camp on Kauai and Alicia Bay Laurel first published “Living on the Earth”: a group of people come together to pursue a simpler, greener, more cooperative alternative to suburban subdivisions or golf-course condos.
And most of these communities have one other thing in common: they’re illegal. It’s almost impossible to get a communal living arrangement on rural land past state zoning laws and county building codes. That leaves them vulnerable: a single neighbor can build a luxury home next door, file a complaint, and bring down the wrath of state and county inspectors. Intentional community residents complain that in a climate where all that’s really needed to live comfortably are a screen house, a catchment tank, a simple solar power system and a composting toilet, building and zoning regulations seem to be designed more to sustain the real estate and construction industries than to sustain the land.
Graham Ellis of Belly Acres, one of the island’s oldest such communities, notes, for instance, that his community, which was originally founded by circus performers as a retreat in lower Puna, has about 30 residents, “But the only permits allowed by the state [on agriculture-zoned land] are family related (5 people) and farm (everyone has to be employed on the farm). And as for composting toilets: “Presently the only composting toilets permitted in the state of Hawai`i are ones built on the mainland and shipped over here.”
Ellis is chair of the Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance, a group of five such communities that have banded together in hope of changing that situation. On October 26, the Alliance held its third annual meeting at Kalani Eco-Resort in Lower Puna. About 70 members came to assess progress and share ideas.
The progress report contained mixed news. On the state level, the group had backed House Bill 111, which would authorize “the use of certain land, subject to county approval and oversight, for research, development, and testing of sustainable agriculture, development, waste management, and resource management through planned community use.” In other words, under the proposed law, people could experiment with composting toilets and communal agriculture without running afoul of ag zoning. The bill made it through the House and passed its first reading in the Senate, but stalled out in the Senate Water and Land Committee, chaired by the Big Island’s own Malama Solomon, and the Committee of Public Safety and Intergovernmental Affairs, chaired by O’ahu’s Will Espero.
According to Puna State Senator Russell Ruderman, who attended the Alliance meeting, the bill will be reintroduced with some amendments. One key change: the new version will apply only to Maui County and the Big Island, excluding O`ahu and Kauai, from which most of the opposition came.
News was not great on the County Level, either. Before amending the county building code last year, the previous County Council did pass a resolution recommending that the County Department of Public Works “Establish a Sustainable Habitat Ordinance,” allowing substitute building materials and “the use of ingenuity and builder preferences” in rural areas. After the resolution’s sponsor, Angel Pilago, retired, newly elected Upper Puna councilor Zendo Kern took up the torch, promising to enact more reforms to the Building Code itself and to introduce a bill for an “alternative building code.” According to an online newsletter from Kern’s office, the alternative code “would allow a homeowner/builder to directly work with an Architect or Engineer [sic] instead of going through the traditional process of obtaining a county building permit or abiding by county inspections. The Architect/Engineer would thereby be responsible for all plan reviews and inspections.”
But so far, no such bill has been introduced, and Kern seems to have made himself scarce to his constituents recently; he canceled a town hall meeting in Pahoa last month, didn’t respond to an invitation to attend the Sustainable Community Alliance meeting, and hasn’t returned the Chronicle’s phone calls. His newsletter stated that “The current stance of both codes are in development as Councilman Kern is still making changes and in preliminary discussions with the Department of Public Works.“
Some constituents, meanwhile, have grown impatient. The Sustainable Community Alliance issued an open letter to Mayor Billy Kenoi calling for action on the issue (See online: http://www.bigislandchronicle.com/2013/07/24/letters-to-the-mayor-regarding-the-stalled-alternative-building-code). A petition at thepetitionsite.com calls for the county to “Move forward on Hawaii Alternative Building Codes!”
“Councilman Zendo Kern has researched and written a draft for an alternative building code bill and submitted it to DPW for their review and comments, but nothing has happened for a long time. The Department of Public Works has sidelined this initiative and has effectively stalled the process,” reads the petition, in part. It notes that residents of intentional communities aren’t the only ones affected by the current ponderous building code: “Thousands of people have simply chosen to quietly build their own homes with no permits or codes. These people live in fear that they will be reported. The county policy is to ignore the many people living this way until there is a complaint, and then the laws are selectively enforced.”
“The county themselves say there are more than 7,000 homes occupied but not permitted,” Ellis told the Chronicle. “It’s not a problem in the sense that any buildings are falling down or people are getting hurt. It’s a problem in the sense that people are living in fear of being turned in. The existing system of compliance, which is complaint driven, is the complete antithesis of what needs to be done for community development, because it turns neighbors against neighbors, and the county itself is being used as a weapon in personal disputes that have nothing to do with health or safety.”
Meanwhile, individuals and organizations are moving forward to implement their own versions of sustainable communities, often working with loopholes in the current zoning and building codes. One architect, for instance, described his work with “distributed structures”: individual bedroom cabins clustered about a central structure with communal kitchen, dining and utility facilities, all for “about the same money as a large three-bedroom sheet rock mansion.”
“If cabins are within 50 feet of the main structure, our present codes will allow it,” he said. He opined that the 50-foot limit was there “created to encourage the California style of building.”
But Ellis and others maintained that such legal restraints needed not to just be worked around; they needed to be changed or abolished. Current farmer/former corporate executive Paul Kuykendall noted that corporate power over government had increasingly overcome local control, so that communities had to battle “State laws and regulations that are written by the companies that bought them….[The] structure of law at the local, the state and federal levels support corporate rights over the rights of communities to say how they want their communities to be.“ He pointed out that organizations such as the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund were working with communities to reclaim local control of their resources.
In the years since hed’d become involved in the intentional community movement, noted Ellis, the motivations behind it had evolved. At first, he said, they were concerned with the question, “’What do we do when the barges stop?’ We thought about earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and stuff….Today, I’m not so worried about the hurricanes…. We’ve got a whole different thing happening. People are writing about it. It’s called the long emergency. It’s the collapse of our economic system. It’s the running out of water in critical places where much of our food has been grown. It’s the global warming effects…”
Now, he says, “What we’ve got going is a shipwreck. The Long Emergency is the boat sinking. We don’t have a lot set up for the long emergency. Now there’s a lot of people like us all around the country, all around world having meetings like this…. They’re not thinking so much about the hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis… It’s the Long Emergency, the future of our kids.”
To overcome the Long Emergency, he said, would require “a huge movement to make the kind of changes that we need…. We have to shift from a consumption-based society to a low-consumption society. More is not better. We need better.”
Alan McNarie has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.