Big Island Land Use | Wrong Lot? Wrong Size?

On Hawai`i Island, it is not uncommon to find lot sizes that are inconsistent with zoning or State Land Use. If you live in Puna, for instance, most property is designated by the state as Agricultural. There are, however, numerous subdivisions including Hawaiian Beaches, Parks and Shores, Nanawale, Ainaloa, and Pacific Paradise Gardens (to name a few), that are on Agricultural lands, but parcels are clearly sized for residential use. In these cases, the County has allowed the creation of residential subdivisions on lands inconsistent with the State Land Use designation.

Agricultural, Urban, and Rural Districts

There are numerous ways this might occur. Interestingly, there are about 2.5 million acres of land on the Big Island. About a third of our lands are agricultural, approximately another third is conservation, a small portion is urban but only 626 acres are rural. This is in contrast to Maui, which has over 8,000 acres of rural use.

Rural districts are meant to accommodate a mix of small farms and low-density residential lots. Agricultural districts are supposed to be for intensive agricultural purposes.

Puna subdivisions were created years ago under subdivision codes existing at the time. Besides allowing formations under subdivision laws, some lots have also been created over time. Property title in Hawaii is traced back to the Great Mahele of 1848.

The Great Mahele

At that time, property lines were drawn by basically defining an area from the top of the mountain to the ocean. Natural formations, such as streams, often interrupted grant lines. Over time, new roads and railroads criss-crossed grant lines impacting existing property divisions. These dictated the creation of new lots by necessity.

Dividing and Combining Lots

Smaller parcels were also created here and there as camps supporting sugar operations were added. Each lot can be sold “as is” but commonly owners acquire adjacent parcels, consolidate, and then re-subdivide the land. This is also referred to as a lot line adjustment. The resulting lots, while usually inconsistent with the zoning size, are fairly uniform in size resulting in a more even distribution of farms and population.

This method was commonly used along the Hamakua Coast. The caution with these parcels is always related to access. Parcels in most of the Puna subdivisions with 1-3 acre lots are consistent with zoning but were created in an entirely different way. They were created using normal subdivision rules under the jurisdiction of the land court.

When in Doubt, Ask a Realtor

Surveys on land court property are done by reviewing the file plan map instead of a legal description. Understanding the nuances of either the legal description or any ground survey isn’t something a typical buyer is supposed to understand.

It is, however, something your agent should be competent enough to examine and, at the very least, advise when additional information or a legal opinion is required. The fact that your property appears to be inconsistent with zoning or State land use isn’t an automatic red flag, but it is something you’ll definitely need additional information about when you think your lot is the wrong lot, or the wrong size!

About the Author

Denise Nakanishi

Denise Nakanishi is a REALTOR Broker with Hawai'i Life. Denise Nakanishi is one of Hilo's most acclaimed real estate agents. She reached the rank of Major in the US Army and is now known by many as "Major Mom." The nickname fits–not only does Denise bring the discipline and mission-oriented attitude you'd expect, she's also caring and compassionate, always looking out for her clients like they're her own family. Having made the Big Island her home since 1987, Denise combines her extensive knowledge of the area with a sharp focus on customer service and the results speak for themselves. She's the recent recipient of the Best East Hawai`i, Best of Zillow, Chairman's Circle Award, President's Circle, Top Producing Agent since 2001, and Realtor of the Year awards. Denise stays ahead of the curve because she's passionate about education–she served as Education Chair for Hawaii Island REALTORS® for many years. She's one of Big Island's best real estate resources, known for her weekly article in the Hawaii Tribune Herald. Denise leads Team Nakanishi for Hawai`i Life, who is committed to their family, work, and community. In her little time away from work, Denise is a committed runner and Grandy. She also devotes many hours to various Veterans' Organizations, the East Hawaii Cultural Center, and the Hawaii Island REALTORS®. You can email me at or via phone at (808) 936-5100.

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Randy c jennings

August 14, 2020

I have a few questions about some land and lots in ocean we . Please reply

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