Letters — Down The Zendo Kern Black Hole? Seeking The Status Of The Alternative Building Code

(Editor’s note: Following is an open letter  Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance president Graham Ellis wrote to Puna Councilman Zendo Kern regarding the alternative building code.)

A growing number of your constituents, actually people who voted for you, are increasingly disappointed in the lack of progress with the Alternative Building Code. Our organization has a petition to Mayor Kenoi signed by 253 constituents requesting action. From your reports, the Dept. of Public Works has had your draft since February 2013. It is nearly a year later and there are still no signs of progress.

In October 2010 the Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance introduced a resolution which was unanimously passed by the County Council. The resolution resolved that “the Dept of Public Works shall establish an Alternative Building Code.”  We now realize that the wording of that Resolution was not strong enough to get the Dept of Public Works to actually move on this issue. We are therefore planning another Resolution for the County Council with new language that will create deadlines for the DPW to act on the consensus of the representatives of the people of the island.

As the  Council Member for a part of Puna that has probably the highest concentration of ‘unpermitted but occupied dwellings’ on the island, we invite you introduce this resolution. Puna folks are requesting this new code but it affects all districts of the island to some degree.

The Dept of Public Works estimate there are more than 7,000 unpermited but occupied homes on the island.

Many thousands of our residents are affected by this,  living as ‘outlaws’ with a fear that ‘someone’ could ‘at some time’ turn them into the County authorities and cause big trouble.  Enforcement staff in the Planning Dept. and the Dept. of Public Works state that many complaints are frivolous, fraudulent and even blatantly vindictive.  Because reports are confidential they breed suspicion  amongst neighbors and even close friends. This can destroy relationships and is the complete antithesis of a system promoting community connectedness and trust. In many cases county codes and staff are used as a weapon to harm otherwise law abiding resident homeowners.

Duane Kanuha, recognizes this and recently suggested to Russell Ruderman this could be resolved with a new category of dwellings titled “Recorded, not permitted”, with the homeowner signing a waiver to indemnify the County against any claims. We would like to know if this an approach you would like to pursue? It seems like a very viable and easy solution for the County and the public. Please get back to us soon on this subject.

Sustainably yours,

Graham Ellis, President

Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance

13 replies
  1. sada anand kaur
    sada anand kaur says:

    When politicians are unresponsive to their constituents, we have ballot box solution.

    Identify, support, vote in young people who can not be brought by profits over people’s needs.

    We have entered new era, what was tolerated in our past is no longer.
    Our populace will no longer stand for arrogant, ambitious, do nothing
    elected civil servants. We are paying their salaries.

  2. CIA
    CIA says:

    This is an excellent idea in theory. However, the “Recorded, no permitted” category should not apply to any developments/communities that have Homeowner Associations with CC&R’s (Conditions, Covenants & Restrictions). Homeowners who have cognitively made the choice to live in a community with written restrictions want all their neighbors to follow the same rules. I live in a community that has slightly over 800 lots but only 200+ homes. Most lots have an excellent 180 degree ocean view. The ‘prime directive’ of our community is to maintain that view. Our HOA board barely has teeth enough to fight the small infractions. If this resolution passes and the county’s Planning Department and Department of Public Works no longer enforce permits, but support the “Recorded, not permitted” approach, homeowners are subject to having a ‘maybe not so nice’ house next door. I beg Mr. Ellis to please think out of the Puna box (and probably HOVE box) and consider all the other areas on this big island of ours. Some rules are made not to be broken for the benefit of the majority.

  3. zendoyouarenotqualified
    zendoyouarenotqualified says:

    I’m not surprised the he can’t do anything or get anything done right.

    I know a personal friend of mine was overcharged for his services in the same area and they now have a “huge” mortgage because of him.

    He is dangerous with his “lack of knowledge”

    We need to stop him from doing anything involved in this arena.

    He’s only out for himself.

    He is not qualified!

  4. matt
    matt says:

    Thanks so much for your work Graham and HSCA guys. My .02 is that the public works has no chance of actually “establishing” anything, let alone making decisions on the existing code established by others. It seems like the second option(recorded not permitted), or even better, a community drafted alternative presented which must simply be “accepted” would be the answer. If so, it may even be that our representatives can vote that alternative code in and bypass their input completely? I wonder what the process was to get the hawaiian hale construction added to the code. The reps are on the side of the people(it seems), but we cannot rely on any cooperation or creativity from public works. In reality they are mostly concerned for their responsibility/liability I’m sure. None of us jungle folk give a mongooses patootie about that stuff. Give me the papers to sign my “suing rights” away!

  5. hazen
    hazen says:

    Graham: “CLAP, CLAP, CLAP.” WTF Zendo?!?

    As to CIA, i don’t think this resolution is in any way contrary to local desires. I should hope that vigorous local involvement would prevent such problems, as far as i know the County does nothing to support the subdivisions. If an individual decides to give the proverbial “finger” to their neighbors that has nothing to do with this, and should be dealt with locally, and forcefully. As communities the responsibility falls on us to explain what is acceptable and not to our neighbors. They may as such represent themselves to the majority at their own peril. Personally i prefer a permissive and verbose community to a silent a dictatorial one.

    Zendo: it’s not too late. Step up. I want to vote for you again. If you decide not to act, please at least have the balls to explain what’s up on the way out. I mean seriously, we’ve outlawed GMOs, made pot a lowest priority, and made gay marriage legal. Can’t we talk about making building affordable and sane? Our codes suck. We don’t have heating, AC, or snow loads in most of Puna. Our codes should reflect that.

  6. Seeb
    Seeb says:

    The idea of singing away the right to sue will not work. because everyone else that did not sign it would still have the right to sue, you cannot sign away someone else’s rights.
    Most of the structural provisions of the code are not that hard to meet. The two things that drive up the price here are the Energy section of the code and requiring licensed contractors for plumbing and electric” It should all be inspected the same “.


  7. andrew
    andrew says:

    Please help us. We are people. we need to live in structures. It is a right of the living to seek shelter.Acknowledge this right by creating a new category for the crazy world of regulation. It is the county that needs the help as well. they must have a path to absolution of accountability in regards to our actions. if you do or dont, people will still build unpermitted structures. it is too hard and expensive to comply with the ever increasing nonsense of regulations. DO your job. thank you, a human.

  8. Hawaiino
    Hawaiino says:

    To Graham Ellis

    Did you create this title “Down the Zendo Kern Blackhole…”?
    Really? I get calling the Building Dept a Black Hole. I get calling Public Works a Black Hole”. I don’t get calling a freshman councilman one, irrespective of his not returning a call or whatever alienated him to you. Seems incendiary and gratuitous.

    If you think one council person is going to reform the building codes or force any kind of change on a bureaucracy the size of this one you need a reality check.
    You write, referring to a council resolution you intend to submit;
    “that will create deadlines for the DPW to act on the consensus of the representatives of the people of the island.”
    Uhhh, resolutions don’t carry the force of…well anything! There a nudge, a suggestion , or sometimes just a fit of pique. But they won’t move bureaucracies to change. Never have, never will.

    You want to call Zendo out for being unresponsive, distracted, or whatever, fine. Others are more specific in their criticisms. There’s already somebody on this blog with a giant sized bone up their keister calling themselves “zendoisnotmyfavoriteguy” or something like that. Seems a trend.

    You want to organize a movement to change the county’s building code, fine too. You can kill two birds with one stone…Make a campaign and work your keister off to get elected, get up to speed on the Charter, the Codes, the Policies, the Administration, preferably while you’re running (and winning) the campaign, then get to know the other Council members, hire and organize your staff, you’ve already got your legislative priorities so that’s simple, now balance it with your constituents needs and demands , and if you can keep your personal life in balance while doing all this and never stop campaigning either cause the cycles roll around quickly.
    Zendo, Greggor, Dru, Karen, Val, all of them bit this off, wanted it, made it happen for themselves, and will succeed or fail based on their skills at balancing all the variables. Having a bit of luck will help too, like getting a ” Profile in Courage” from the NYT ( props to Greggor, turning into more than most of us assumed he would/could)
    Saddling any of them with making much progress in reforming a county department in their first term is asking a bit much

  9. Tiffany Edwards Hunt
    Tiffany Edwards Hunt says:

    Graham Ellis did not write the headline; I did.

    Zendo Kern is a phantom in lower Puna. No one I know has heard from or seen him. People think he moved. You may have heard from him, Hawaiino, because you are not a constituent. You are a campaign supporter. He may very well treat you differently. It is time to hash that out, because from my vantage point Zendo’s representation has been minimal to none — particularly with his campaign promises and slogan, “From Puna, for Puna.”

  10. Hawaiino
    Hawaiino says:

    Aloha Tiff

    Being proactive is the best way to serve the public, being responsive is the bare minimum. If Zendo needs a wake up call so be it.
    Shout out to Zendo…the campaign never ends!
    Failing to reform the Building Code or Dept. of Public Works in his first term is a pretty high threshold of expectation though. I think there are two different issues here and the expectations should not be linked.

  11. hazen
    hazen says:


    Many of us elected Zendo specifically on this issue, he was very proactive and had an excellent dialogue with us. Then he didn’t… he has been wholly unresponsive on this issue. If politics or various departments have made this hard then he needs to communicate that so that we the constituents may apply pressure. We have heard NOTHING. And from what i understand this extends into most all aspects of his office. I like Zendo, he’s nice, charismatic, seems down to earth. But i can’t support him when he’s not responding to constituents. Graham has done TONS of work on this issue. He’s submitted lots of paperwork. This isn’t a witch hunt, just a “Hey bro what’s up?” We who support this are now stalled as Zendo was our in. We need him to do his part so we can direct our resources. We’re not complaining about lack of results or disappointed expectations. Just looking for any motion or communication. I encourage you to contact him.

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