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Hawaii pledges to protect Maui homeowners from predatory land grabs after wildfires: "Not going to allow it"

Hawaii governor vows to protect Maui property
Hawaii governor vows to protect Maui property from developers 02:08

As the ongoing response to last week's devastating wildfires ramps up on Maui, the Hawaiian governor has vowed again to work with government officials to prevent residents from falling prey to opportunistic and potentially predatory offers to buy their land.

"My intention from start to finish is to make sure that no one is victimized from a land grab that we do not suffer predation against those who are suffering," Gov. Josh Green said Wednesday. Green told reporters that he has directed the state attorney general to work toward imposing a moratorium on the sale of Maui properties that were either damaged or destroyed in the blazes.

Officials previously estimated that about 2,200 structures — most of them residential — were impacted by the fires, which tore through parts of West Maui and the island's inland Upcountry region and hit Lahaina, a commercial and cultural center, particularly hard, with the governor suggesting last week that at least 80% of the historic coastal town had been decimated.

Green acknowledged Wednesday that actually imposing a moratorium on real estate transactions presents "some legal challenges" that the government is prepared to fight to prevent "transactions that take advantage of our people" and "make sure that people don't lose their land here in Hawaii." He said more details about how they plan to do that should come by Friday. 

Dozens Killed In Maui Wildfire Leaving The Town Of Lahaina Devastated
A firefighting helicopter flies near a building that was destroyed by a wildfire on Aug. 16, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Getty Images

"That doesn't mean that we don't want people to come and invest in Hawaii and travel to Hawaii away from the impact zone," Green continued. "What it means is people are right now traumatized. Please don't approach them with an offer to buy land. Please don't approach their families to tell them that they're going to be better off if they make a deal. Because we're not going to allow it."

The governor said he would move to restrict land purchases if necessary.

Green said earlier this week that the state government in Hawaii would consider ways to acquire land on Maui "to protect it for our local people so it's not stolen" by people from the mainland United States. The governor's office initially addressed concerns on Monday about real estate scams targeting Maui residents who own fire-damaged properties on the island, saying, "Residents are being approached about selling fire-damaged home sites, by people posing as real estate agents who may have ill intent."

In a news release issued the same day, officials at the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs told homeowners on Maui to exercise caution and report any "unsolicited offers to buy their properties," warning that those offers could be unjustly low if predatory buys are hoping to" capitalize upon the fear of foreclosure or the cost of rebuilding to induce owners to sell their properties at below-market prices."

A Mercy Worldwide volunteer assesses the damage to a charred apartment complex in the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, western Maui, Hawaii on Aug. 12, 2023. YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

The release noted that state law protects owners of distressed residential properties — homes nearing foreclosure — and outlines penalties for people "who seek to exploit homeowners' hardships for economic gain."

"We are disheartened to hear that survivors of this catastrophe are being approached by unscrupulous persons whose only goal is to prey upon them. If someone approaches you with a deal or offer, and you did not reach out to them first, please hang up the phone or walk away," said Esther Brown, a complaints and enforcement officer at the department, in a statement. "Chances are high that unsolicited deals are not a legitimate operation or part of the federal, state, county and private partnership working to assist those affected."

The death toll from the Maui wildfires rose to 111 as of Wednesday and is expected to increase considerably as search efforts continue. Adam Weintraub, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the latest estimates suggest between 1,100 and 1,300 people are still missing in the aftermath of the disaster.

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