By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
More homeowners could soon be moved away from Puna Geothermal Venture with the help of Hawaii County.
Last summer, the county Planning Department received a record 25 applications for the program that allows people living near the plant to sell their home to the county at as much as 130 percent of assessed value.
The intent of the program, established with the county’s share of geothermal royalties, was to help people concerned about health and other impacts from the plant to be able to move away.
Five relocations have been approved to date, with the most recent in 2012.
Because of the high volume of requests, which occurred while the County Council was considering using the relocation fund to cover a geothermal health study, the department chose to withhold action until it could contract the work of purchasing and reselling the homes.
Joaquin Gamiao, planning administrative officer, said Wednesday the department is in the final stages of approving a contract with Prudential Orchid Isle Properties to assist with the transactions and could begin purchasing homes in the next couple months.
But only five or six may be purchased this year due to limited funds.
The Geothermal Relocation and Community Benefits Program, which funds relocations, has about $3.3 million with $1 million of that held in reserve.
Gamiao said the department will fund as many relocations as can be purchased and will use additional geothermal royalty revenue to handle the rest in coming years. As with previous relocations, most are expected to be purchased at 130 percent of assessed value as long as there aren’t major problems with the homes.
The practice of selling the homes at more than market rate was likely established to help with moving costs, he said.
The county receives about $600,000 a year in royalties, which could put some relocations years away.
Twenty-three applications have been found to be eligible. Two were disqualified since they involved vacant property.
The relocation request form says that properties must have been purchased before Oct. 3, 1989, before the plant was built, and be within a mile of the facility.
Only one of the pending requests meets the purchase-date qualification, though though all appear to be about a mile from PGV’s property off Kapoho Road.
Gamiao said neither are actual requirements. He said the county gives priority to homes that meet that criteria and acknowledge the form will likely have to be changed.
Eighteen of the 23 eligible properties were last purchased in the past 13 years, according to county records.
Alfred Dettweiler is one of the residents seeking relocation.
He moved into his home in Leilani Estates in 1991 on the day a well at the plant blew, spewing gas and prompting an evacuation.
“From that day on I was very concerned about living there,” said Dettweiler, 73.
He stayed, hoping management of the plant would improve.
But Dettweiler said still has his concerns, particularly with long-term exposure to emissions, even at low levels, and believes it’s time to take advantage of the program.
“They are making noise about putting more plants around,” he said. “It’s double jeopardy now.”
The large volume of relocation requests could mean little or nothing available for community benefits in Puna, another use of the fund.
The community benefits can include capital projects or other services.
The Department of Parks and Recreation has tapped into the fund for security at the Isaac Hale Beach Park and Pahoa Community Center.
Gamiao said relocations take priority and he doesn’t expect any money to be left over after this year for other uses.
Parks spokesman Jason Armstrong said the department may have to consider allocating its own funds for the security.
“We would have to look at that,” he said.
“It’s unclear what our funding would be July 1,” Armstrong added.
Robert Williams, Prudential Orchid Isle Properties owner and principal broker, said he expects the contract with the county to be finalized in the next few weeks.
The real estate company would receive 3 percent of the selling price and 6 percent of the purchase price in compensation, Gamiao said.
Prudential would handle all aspects of buying and selling the properties, including costs, while the county would have final say over acquisition, he said.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.