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Vacation rentals measure on hold

A bill regulating vacation rentals has been pulled from consideration until the Board of Ethics can determine whether North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff has a conflict of interest in co-sponsoring it.

The county Ethics Board, which next meets March 19, likely will consider Eoff’s request for an opinion as well as a complaint from vacation rental owner Rob Guzman.

In a letter Tuesday to the council, Eoff asked that Bill 108 be withheld from referral to a committee until after the Ethics Board rules on any conflict of interest. The bill originally was scheduled to be heard Feb. 20.

“As a duly elected councilperson, with a responsibility to address the issues important to my constituents, I take this responsibility very seriously,” Eoff said in a statement Wednesday. “When concerns were raised about my role regarding Bill 108, I took immediate and proper measures to address those concerns.

“I would prefer not to comment any further until the Board of Ethics has reviewed my petition,” she added.

Guzman’s complaint addresses the conflict of interest question as well as whether Eoff ran afoul of the ethics code when she misrepresented her ownership of a vacation rental condo in email exchanges with him and told him not to pursue his questions. He also questioned why her annual financial disclosure report did not include income from the condo unit.

“I am writing today to request an investigation into Councilwoman Karen Eoff given her various recent actions regarding Bill No. 108, which include lying to a voter about her ownership of a rental property, pressuring a voter not to share information, and failing to disclose income from this property on a form required of her in her position as an elected official,” Guzman said in a letter Tuesday to the Ethics Board.

A Feb. 8 email conversation between Eoff and Guzman, copied to newspaper reporters, showed Eoff at first denied she had a vacation rental. Guzman was pressing Eoff to explain why she shouldn’t recuse herself from the legislation because of her own property holdings.

“I do not have — and have never had — a rental of any kind,” Eoff said in the email. “Please stop sending misinformation.”

When confronted with the record of her transient accommodations tax license, she backed off that assertion, saying she misunderstood.

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, the other co-sponsor of the bill, said Wednesday he supports holding the bill back until the ethics questions are resolved.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to discuss this with the public who will be affected by this bill and see other options and ways to improve it,” Kanuha said.

Bill 108 would require existing transient vacation rentals outside of the Vacation District, the General Commercial District or Resort Nodes to apply for a nonconforming use certificate in order to be grandfathered in.

Those in the allowed districts, such as Eoff, would be required to register with the county, but they don’t have to apply to the Planning Department for a nonconforming use permit.

While many vacation rental operators and real estate agents are up in arms about limiting rental activity in residential and agriculture zones, other residents in neighborhoods being overtaken by vacation rentals hope to see a solution.

There were 4,500 Big Island listings on the Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway websites Wednesday, according to Leleiwi resident Stefan Buchta, who’s compiling data for a presentation to the County Council. Buchta worries the bigger picture is being lost in the controversy over Eoff’s possible conflict of interest.

“At the current growth rate, there will be 10,000 short-term rentals on our island next year,” Buchta said in an email. “Bill 108 is not perfect, but it is the best thing we have to put a Band-Aid on the problem and stop the bleeding. Please let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater!”