Opponents of a controversial plan to block off parking across the street from Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore say they’ll file suit if the Hawaii Department of Transportation puts up barriers along the road.

The plan is the state’s first effort to improve traffic in the area despite years of complaints by residents and motorists.

The proposal to install a 1,000 foot-long concrete wall to block off the sandy parking area is part of an effort to keep traffic flowing and pedestrians off Kamehameha Highway. The road along Laniakea Beach, also known as Turtle Beach or Lani’s, is just two lanes wide and is notorious for people crossing through clogged traffic.

The barriers would mark the first time in recent memory the state has taken substantive action to address the area’s terrible congestion, despite having received funding to begin studying the issue in 2007.

Despite all that time to think, critics say the state came to the wrong conclusions and that the plan is misguided and could prevent beach access.

That said, the plan is a relief to some North Shore residents, who are glad that the state is finally doing something to address worsening road congestion. The route along Lanikea Beach is the site of more than 2,400 pedestrians crossings on some days, as people park on the mauka side and dart across the street to surf, swim or search for turtles. And then there are the buses that unload tourists along the road, often bringing traffic along one of the island’s prime natural tourist spots to a frustrating crawl.

But opposition to the state’s plan has been mounting among residents who are worried that the barriers will limit access to the beach, a favorite local surf spot that sees 600,000 visitors a year. Critics say the barriers will cause even more traffic and public safety problems by forcing people to parallel park along the highway and walk further to the beach.

The North Shore Neighborhood Board shot down the plan to put up barriers in September, and a state-organized task force on the issue also voted down the proposal resoundingly that month. Residents and environmental organizations such as the Oahu Sierra Club and the Oahu Surfrider Foundation have sent hundreds of letters and emails to the state protesting the barriers, even holding rallies in opposition earlier this month.

Despite increasingly vocal community opposition, the department intends to move forward and install the barriers within the next two weeks.

“We do realize it’s not a perfect solution,” said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter.

Traffic by Laniakea Beach on Oahu's North Shore where visitors stop and watch for turtles. 12.18.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Traffic by Laniakea Beach on Oahu’s North Shore where visitors stop and watch for turtles.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Sluyter emphasized the barriers are just a temporary solution. The current plan is for the department to put them up for just the month of January and see if transportation officials want to keep them after that.

In the long run, the department plans to realign the highway to address traffic congestion, public safety and shoreline erosion problems. A task force on the issue started meeting about the proposal last year and the project is expected to break ground in five years.

Sluyter said the department decided to move forward with the temporary barriers after hearing from North Shore residents who feel trapped in their homes out of fear of getting stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

But opponents of the barriers say the department is ignoring better options and could take the issue to court.

Local attorney Bill Saunders said he is planning to file a lawsuit against the state and the city as soon as the barriers are in place.

“We have prepared a complaint and we’re ready to go,” Saunders said.

Saunders said he will represent several Hawaii residents he declined to name but described as “famous people who are longtime users of the area who are involved in ocean sports.”

He said the state should have filed for a special management permit before installing the barriers. Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting Director George Atta wrote in a letter dated Dec. 3 that the department doesn’t have enough information to determine whether such a permit is necessary. Saunders argues that it is.

The state and the city declined to comment on a potential lawsuit.

Saunders said the state should have explored other options such as installing a crosswalk and a stop light along the road, rather than blocking off access entirely.

Others argue that there should be more enforcement of regulations relating to tour buses. The buses aren’t supposed to stop to unload people just anywhere along the road, but do, said Blake McElheny, a North Shore resident and a member of the Oahu Sierra Club who opposes the plan.

Data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority shows that the number of people crossing the road rises when buses are dropping off tourists, which can happen more than 100 times in one day.

Laniakea Beach on Oahu's North Shore where visitors watch for turtles. 12.18.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Laniakea Beach

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Gil Riviere, a former lawmaker and a member of the state’s task force that is analyzing the traffic issue, said the Department of Transportation is overcompensating for its lack of action in previous years.

The department received $1.2 million to analyze traffic alternatives six years ago but didn’t take action. The money lapsed and was later re-appropriated for the same purpose.

Riviere also said the department’s task force met for the first time in January 2012, but that it hasn’t met as frequently as it is supposed to. Like Saunders, he opposes the barriers and wants the state to install a crosswalk instead.

Sluyter said that she couldn’t comment on the department’s inaction under past administrations but said the department has been criticized in the past for doing nothing and is now making an effort to respond to the problem.

Undoubtedly, for many local residents, the state’s effort comes as a relief. Traffic on the North Shore is notorious even by Honolulu’s stop-and-go standards — and the state capital has some of the worst traffic in the nation. And North Shore traffic is only expected to get worse with upcoming developments, such as the Turtle Bay Resort expansion and Envision Laie, a proposal pushed by the Mormon Church to expand Brigham Young University and add hundreds of homes.

State Rep. Richard Fale, who represents the North Shore, said in an email that many people in his district are frustrated and that he’s working with the state to make sure that the concrete barriers are effective.

“While all parties agree that this isn’t a permanent solution, the community overwhelmingly agrees that something has to be done because current conditions are unacceptable,” he said.

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