Every year, the City and County of Honolulu lets slide an opportunity to get more than a quarter of a million dollars in federal funding to promote sustainable coastal development.

The funds, which the other three counties in Hawaii receive, is mostly used to hire staff to implement the Coastal Zone Management Act, which is federal legislation that was passed in 1972 to balance the needs of environmental conservation with coastal development.

Honolulu county was receiving about $280,000 a year from the program until 2007, when Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting concluded that increased federal oversight and stricter reporting requirements were too onerous.

“The funding comes with a lot of strings attached to it,” said George Atta, director for the county planning department. “It was creating a lot of headaches for us from an administrative standpoint.”
But with portions of some North Shore homes falling into the ocean last week and forecasts that coastal erosion will accelerate due to climate change and rising sea levels, some environmentalists and policymakers say the county’s inaction is part of a pattern of neglect when it comes to dealing with homes, businesses and infrastructure that are too close to the ocean.

Other county planning departments, meanwhile, say that the reporting requirements aren’t actually much of a challenge.

Michele McLean, deputy director for the Maui County Planning Department, said, “It’s become such a routine thing for us in terms of the reporting. It really isn’t burdensome.”

Maui County receives $344,600 in funding from the program which it uses to fund four full-time positions. McLean, who called Oahu’s rejection of the funding “eyebrow raising,” said that Maui’s staff members deal with issues related to sea-level rise, coastal development and erosion.

Atta insisted that the loss of funding does not impede the department’s ability to comply with federal and state regulations relating to coastal development. He said that other staff in the department’s land use permitting division have taken on the work required by the Coastal Zone Management Act.

Still, the lost funding would have equaled about one quarter of the $1.2 million annual budget of the land use permitting division for 2014.

And though the county planning department hasn’t sought such federal funding in recent years, it is requesting an increase in development fees, partly to cover coastal management activities on Oahu.

The planning department submitted a bill in November to the Honolulu City Council seeking to raise fees to help pay for its administrative oversight of land-use permits, shoreline setbacks and special management areas. Special management areas are coastal zones that require increased regulation under the Coastal Zone Management Program. The bill, which would add new permitting fees, is intended to raise as much as $1 million for the planning department.

Oahu’s coastal development is far more extensive than that on neighbor islands. And, ironically, Honolulu county’s decision to opt-out of the funding actually increases the amount of federal money that is available to the other islands, according to Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning.

The Big Island receives $342,964 in funding and Kauai receives $287,731 for the 2014 fiscal year.

Leo Asuncion, program manager for Hawaii’s Coastal Zone Management Program, said that he has received no formal indication from Honolulu that the loss in funding keeps the county from being able to stay in line with the Coastal Zone Management Act. But, he said, Honolulu has seemed reluctant to take on the issue of coastal management because its so complex.

“Honolulu is probably the thousand-pound gorilla because we have allowed development to happen already and there isn’t anything that is going to change that,” said Asuncion.

“Not only residences, but what about the hotels, what about the economic drivers? What about our roadways? What about our utilities?”

Robert Harris, executive director for the Hawaii Sierra Club, said that the county’s rejection of the funds is indicative of the county’s general reluctance to address coastal development and erosion problems.

Whereas Maui and Kauai have been “relatively progressive” in trying to find the right balance and in planning for future erosion, “Oahu has been about the most adamant in believing those controls are unnecessary,” said Harris.

Statewide, 9 percent of Hawaii’s beaches have been lost, mostly due to improperly located coastal development, according to a recent report from the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

On Oahu, between 30 and 40 percent of beaches have disappeared, mostly as a byproduct of efforts to protect private property from encroaching erosion, said Dolan Eversole, a coastal hazards specialist at the University of Hawaii. The main cause: erecting seawalls to save houses.

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