By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Hilo resident Daniel Grant-Johnson, 62, suffers from a neuromuscular disorder that requires him to use a motorized wheelchair to get around.
But when asked whether his limited mobility, combined with the ever-present threat that looms over his home, makes him worry for his safety, he is unequivocal in his lack of concern for himself: “Twenty-five years ago I gave my life to Jesus, so I’m not worried about what will happen to me,” he says with a dismissive wave of his hand.
Instead, Grant-Johnson says he worries for the multiple school buses, pedestrians and other passers-by that go by daily along the busy little residential street off of Waianuenue Avenue. As he speaks, he cranes his neck upward to stare into the enormous expanse of albizia tree branches hundreds of feet high that seem to blot out the sun above the home he shares with his wife.
The fast-growing albizia trees, an invasive species, have earned a reputation in Hawaii as “junk trees,” due to their propensity for spreading and growing like weeds and posing a danger to people, power lines, vehicles and homes due to their brittle nature and tendency to collapse.
Albizias are among the fastest growing trees in the world, capable of climbing 20 feet in their first year, 45 feet in their third, and up to 60 feet by the end of their 10th year, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Their fast growth makes them weaker than normal trees, with their foundations often unable to support the mass piling on above. Huge branches, or even whole trees, can snap and fall with little or no provocation, experts say.
So when Grant-Johnston moved into his home on Punahele Street a little over a year ago, the large albizia tree on the plot of land across the street rapidly became a concern.
“Limbs are always falling, when it storms, or it’s windy,” he said. “Just a few months ago, a limb fell and blocked the whole street. The county had to send guys out with chainsaws to clear the road.”
On Tuesday, Grant-Johnson called the Tribune-Herald saying that a limb had fallen and penetrated his front yard, standing up out of the ground like a big “lightning bolt captured in mid-air,” he said. Looking at the branch erupting from the ground, it was easy to see why he is concerned for the safety of anyone unlucky enough to find himself beneath such a missile as it plummets to Earth.
“If that hits a person, it could do real damage,” he said. “God forbid, someone could get really hurt.”
For about a year, Grant-Johnson said he has worked to contact the owner of the property to cut the tree down, but he’s had virtually no luck in getting a response. Hawaii County’s corporation counsel has even gotten involved, filing on June 25 a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief against the property owners — the estate of the deceased Harold Spencer, Dylan Spencer, Maitland Spencer, Jadelynn Spencer, Allyson Spencer and Florence Spencer.
Contacting absent property owners with safety issues like this is always an enormous hassle, said Michael J. Udovic, deputy corporation counsel.
“Our process server in Honolulu is having a really difficult time,” he said. “It’s awful, it’s really horrendous (trying to serve property owners). We’ve had some cases where the county has had to hire somebody to just sit on a piece of property and wait for someone to come by. … Homeowners get very frustrated over these kinds of things.”
According to the lawsuit, the Department of Public Works first issued to the property owners on Sept. 6, 2012, a notice of violation concerning the tree, requiring action by Nov. 6, 2012. On Nov. 8, 2012, defendant Allyson Spencer, aka Allyson Kamaka, requested an extension to correct the violation, which she was granted until Jan. 21, 2013. She then requested a further extension on Jan. 23 and was assessed a fine and required to respond by March 4, 2013.
“The County of Hawaii Department of Public Works … has had no contact from Defendant Allyson Spencer aka Allyson Kamaka or any of the offending parties at any time after January 29, 2013, nor has the violations specified … been corrected,” the lawsuit reads.
“I’ve been trying to do something about this for over a year,” Grant-Johnson added, “but so far, nothing.”
Just last month, a bill being considered by Hawaii County — Bill 64 — that would have addressed similar situations was delayed as commissioners work to amend it.
Bill 64 would add unsafe flora to an ordinance governing responses to refuse and undergrowth on unoccupied lots on the island. It provides for an adjacent property owner to make the initial complaint to the mayor.
“There needs to be some way for lot owners to be accountable for dangerous trees on their property,” bill sponsor Zendo Kern said at a county meeting on July 9.
Among the bill’s supporters is state Sen. Russel Ruderman, D.-Puna, Ka‘u, who sponsored a resolution that passed this year’s legislative session urging the state Invasive Species Council to implement a coordinated multiagency plan for control and eradication of the albizia.
Removing a single albizia tree can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, according to Springer Kaye of the Big Island Invasive Species Committee.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.