Thursday, April 30, 2015

Zoning on Maui - Trying to Make Sense of It

Zoning on Maui seems to be like the weather. You can’t really do much about it, and everyone has an opinion. Zoning underpins Maui real estate, affecting what one can and can’t do with a given parcel of land.

I’m no expert on real estate, but here’s my stab at MSU (making stuff up)*, because this is my letter Z post for the A to Z Challenge.

Basic zoning on Maui includes:
Agricultural lots
Residential lots, including categories R1, R2, R3
Rural - usually "rural half acre"
Conservation land
Resort zoning
Business and commercial zoning

The size of one’s residential lot affects whether one can build an ohana, a secondary and smaller house, or the size of the ohana (often 600 – 800 square feet). Where I live, “out in the jungle,” some people ignore building and zoning codes the way pedestrians disregard jaywalking signs. Often, they get away with it, especially the more difficult it is to reach their house.

True Story: DH and I considered renting a place that required parking on a side road, and hiking down a hill across a muddy field – at least a ¼ of a mile from the car. He says it was more like a mile. This could make stocking up at Costco rather difficult, and no building inspector is eager to make that trek.

The problem is when the house goes up for sale, and has “illegal dwellings” or permitting violations, or when a neighbor reports your illegal construction to the county. It’s like pre-WWII Germany out here – hostile neighbors reporting on you…

One legal “work-around” is that Maui’s building codes do NOT include the outdoor deck in the size of an ohana. One can have a TINY building with a HUGE roofed deck and enjoy Maui style indoor/outdoor living and still have running water and electricity. One friend showed me his 600 square foot ohana with his even bigger covered deck. It’s deck, what were you thinking?

Tiny House, Big Deck.
 If you're into Tiny Houses, check out Tiny House Hawaii.

Agricultural zoning is also kind of different from what one might expect. Agricultural land can be a zone of contention. Ha, ha, trying to keep myself amused at 1 in the morning.

Maui farms are really tiny, minuscule, compared to the size of farms on the mainland. A few people might have 5 or 10 acres or more, but there are many ag lots that are merely 2 acres. (English purists, take note, I am not going to spell out the number 2.)

2 acres for a working farm! Well, not exactly. Of the agricultural 2 acre lots, most of them look indistinguishable from big residential lots, and are even located on the same street, or intermixed with residential lots.

So, what’s my point? A 2-acre ag lot is like a regular house lot with a really BIG yard. Neighbors are farther away, and there’s more room and privacy.These 2 acre ag lots are expensive and highly desired by investors and well-heeled newcomers or oldtimers to the island. They are NOT affordable for most true farmers. Ideally, they would be used for sustainable agriculture on Maui, but they are mostly “residential lots with BIG yards” with a little bit of agriculture to satisfy the county.

People do a “farm plan,” plant a couple of coconut trees or bananas and put a “fruit stand” in front of their house. Maybe they borrow a couple of goats for the county inspection, but maybe that’s just a story I heard. Some people go farther and raise chickens, goats, and plant vegetables on their ag lots and have a hobby farm. On Maui, we call these 2-acre ag lots “gentleman farms.” Gentlemen don’t want to get Maui’s red dirt under their fingernails. I found an interesting article, written in the 90s I think, about the policy shift to create 2-acre ag lots.

Typical Maui Farm Stand, probably in front of a 2 acre ag lot. 

Now it makes sense. A real estate friend told me that houses on ag land are taxed at a higher rate than houses on residential land. The ag land itself is taxed at a lower rate, but not the houses. The county realizes that most people on ag lots are not really farmers, just people who can afford to buy the land.

Having said that, I know of some true farmers who really grow food and farm their 2-acre ag lot. Maybe it is possible to produce $100,000 of food on a 2-acre lot in a year, but one has to have some experience as a farmer, know how to market farm products, and be able to run a business. Ironically, the true farmers on 2-acre ag lots are usually supplementing their income – by working in real estate, teaching golf, or doing some other non-farm vocation. Clever farmers could try to operate farm tours, so even if they don’t make much money by farming, they are making money through eco-tourism or ag tourism.

One solution is to create affordable farm land trusts on Maui, which would allow people who truly want to farm, to be able to lease farm land inexpensively and even to buy farm land eventually, like a “rent-to-own” program. There is also a fledgling program for apprentice farmers on Maui.

By the way, this is a hot development issue that surfaced this week. The lots look pretty big, so I presume they are zoned as ag:

NORTHSHORE OPEN SPACE LOVERS UNITE!Friday April 24th was the deadline for Maui County Council Members to add funding...
Posted by Erik Blair on Monday, April 27, 2015
The other touchy area with zoning, especially with agricultural land, is that the County is afraid that people will turn an extra house into a vacation rental. This is also the reason why ag zoning limits the number of homes or buildings. For a true working farm, it would be ideal to have extra houses for farm workers to live on the farm. But if you’re a vacation rental owner, hmmm, it’d be nice to have extra houses to rent to tourists. Since Maui has a housing shortage due to various factors and probably a lack of planning, the vacation rental issue is really touchy. The County doesn’t want to open a floodgate to vacation rentals on ag land.

The other crazy side of agricultural zoning, and this may be total MSU “making stuff up” is that one can let farm animals do anything they want on one’s agricultural land, which may be next door to you (since ag lots are mixed in with residential lots). So, if your neighbors’ pigs are oinking at you, or peeing on the fence line and it stinks, or their 18 roosters are crowing all morning and night (cause yeah, roosters don’t just crow at 6 am), you can’t legally make your neighbor get rid of the pigs or roosters or duct tape their oinkers or beaks. Apparently, court cases were tried, and ruled in favor of the ag land owner.

So…zoning on Maui, does it make sense? Maybe not, but I’m having a good time envisioning someone chasing a rooster with duct tape. 

Here's another link on land and zoning issues on Maui by Maui Tomorrow.

Just checking to see if anyone is still reading. Can you read what it says?
This spray painted graffiti was spotted in the resort zone of Wailea.

(By the way, while I have your attention, two friends are running interesting projects:

Phew! Glad to be done with this year’s A to Z Challenge. (Except I still have some "minion" duties to finish for my A-Z team.)

Here's a shortcut to the archives for the A to Z Challenge and other blog posts. 

The theme of this year’s A to Z Challenge is Living on Maui: A Beginner’s Survival Guide. While I can’t include everything in only 26 short blog posts, this is my foolish attempt.

If you are participating in the A to Z Challenge, please use either Disqus or Facebook to comment below. Please include your link so that I can visit you back, but it might be as late as May!

*MSU - Making Stuff Up. Borrowing this phrase from a teacher on Hawaiian plant medicine, David Leonard.


  1. I really enjoyed your theme this year! :) Made me feel like I know Maui as a place better now. And such fun posts :)

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary - Epics from A to Z
    MopDog - 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

  2. Thanks for reading! Glad you enjoyed it! I'd love to comment more intelligently, but my brain is dribbling out!

  3. Congratulations on completing the A to Z blogging challenge!

    Don’t forget about the A to Z Reflections post coming up in May.


    Tim Brannan, The Other Side Blog

    2015 A to Z of Vampires

  4. Thanks Tim, I'm doing the same minioning duties you are!

  5. I live in a neighborhood with .25-acre lots...we had a neighbor with chickens. In his back yard. I guess it's possible to farm anywhere!

  6. At first I thought your post was going to be about zoning as in chillin'! Shows you how zonked I am after this challenge! Interesting article Courtney thank you, complex rules and regulations ...I laughed at the neighbour chasing the rooster with duct take!!!

  7. We live on .6 acres, as do others here in Desert Aire, WA, but we can't raise chickens, which bothers some. We do have lots of coyotes, so maybe the rule is a good thing. Ultimately I think zoning is necessary where ever you live, but you can't please everyone. Congrats on finishing the was fun to learn more about Maui!!

  8. Coyotes?! I've heard friends say they had bad ass coyotes in Orange County, who would stroll the streets in the middle of day light, eating little dogs like candy. Also have to watch out for the kids playing. Chickens would be nearly impossible to protect. If one just has hens, female chickens, they still lay eggs, but it'd be a lot of work to keep them safe from predators. Maui doesn't have any predators for chickens. Just people. Zoning turned out to be very hard to write, so I had to try several passes at it. No, definitely can't please everyone!

  9. Wow, some interesting and complicated issues to think about on Hawaiian soil. My husband was born in Honolulu and his dad was born and raised in Hawaii. Congrats on finishing the challenge!

  10. Very interesting post, Courtney, like all the others you've written. Until we stayed in the upcountry, I didn't ever consider living in Maui because I thought it was too full of tourists. But, after reading your posts, it's a contender, should the Husband and I decide to move there...after we win the lottery.

    Congrats on making the finish line as a participant and minion. :-)

  11. Agricultural Land Is So Important!!!

    What I wouldn't give to have my own little parcel of land to work, but 2 acres? That can't be right, lol, hardly sounds like it offers enough room to feed yourself... never mind growing for market. Then if it's a seasonal crop you only get paid half the year... I'm constantly baffled by people who want to push out farms; food doesn't start at the grocer!

    I know of some towns, where Ag land has a tax break attached to it if you can prove you're using it for its intended purpose; so if you were paying 5000 property tax maybe they knock it down to 4000...mayb something similar would encourage real farmers and discourage vacation rentals?

    @Get Lost in Lit


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