A wealthy South Korean businessman who bought two Kahala beachfront properties was required to tear out an illegal seawall that was encroaching on the public beach. But the city has since given Lee Kun-hee, the billionaire chairman of South Korea’s Samsung Group, permission to erect a new wall just mauka of the state’s certified shoreline, which scientists say will exacerbate beach erosion.
Critics say the city approval also signals a destructive trend when it comes to allowing seawalls and other structures that harden the shoreline, effectively expanding a loophole in the law that allows property owners to claim hardship when arguing for a protective wall.
Usually, property owners invoke the hardship clause when the ocean is threatening their homes. In this case, the plot is currently vacant.
“It’s such a new precedent for environmental damage,” said Chip Fletcher, a coastal geologist and associate dean at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology, who has become one of the state’s leading experts on beach erosion.
He called the decision, unanimously approved by the Honolulu City Council, “crazy.”
Officials at the Department of Planning and Permitting, which recommended to the City Council that the seawall be approved, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.
Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents the area, didn’t return a call for comment.
Lee is planning to spend up to $20 million to build a 16,000-square-foot luxury home, staff and guest quarters, pool and garage on two adjacent vacant lots at 4465 and 4469 Kahala Ave. that were formerly owned by Japanese billionaire, Genshiro Kawamoto, according to the project’s environmental assessment filed with the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.
But to get county permits to start construction, he needed to have the state certify the shoreline, which would then determine the county setback area, according to permitting documents. For new construction, the county requires that homes and permanent structures be set back 60 feet from the shoreline in order to protect the beach.
In order to figure out where the shoreline ends and Lee’s property begins, the seawall that was blocking the waves needed to be torn down, according to Sam Lemmo, who heads the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.
Several months passed after the wall was taken out. The sand came back and the waves pushed up on the shoreline. DLNR determined that the high wash of the waves was about 20 feet mauka of where the old seawall was and certified the shoreline.
It was a “big encroachment,” Lemmo said about the old seawall. Records don’t indicate when the wall was built, but the environmental assessment indicates it was sometime prior to the late 1980s.
That gave Lee a certified shoreline for the property and he could proceed with construction plans.
He then applied for a shoreline setback variance from the city, asking for permission to build a rock wall within the setback area and just mauka of the state’s certified shoreline.
The Honolulu City Council, on the recommendation of the Department of Planning and Permitting, granted it. The city planning and permitting department argued that Lee would otherwise suffer an economic hardship.
But the new wall — like all the other walls that line Kahala Beach — will likely erode the beach within a few years, said UH’s Fletcher.
Honolulu ordinance relating to the county setback states that “it is a primary policy of the city to protect and preserve the natural shoreline, especially sandy beaches,” and it’s a “secondary policy of the city to reduce hazards to property from coastal floods.”
But beach advocates say in practice private property rights are elevated above the public’s right to the beach by allowing property owners to argue that they will suffer a hardship if they aren’t granted permission to erect structures like walls, sandbags and boulders to protect their properties.
“This does nothing more than guarantee that every beach will get a seawall on it,” said Fletcher. “Look at the beach data that is available. If the beach is chronically eroding, you have to realize that the future holds nothing but hardship after hardship.”
Scientists estimate that Oahu has already lost one fourth of its beaches, primarily because of seawalls. And a new study conducted by UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology and DLNR indicates that the erosion rate is expected to more than double in coming decades due to global warming and sea level rise.
Jeffrey Overton, a planner for Group 70 International which was hired by Lee to do the property’s environmental assessment, took exception with the notion that the new rock wall signaled a prioritization of the private property owner’s plans over the public’s right to the beach.
After the illegal seawall was torn down, “we created an additional 12 to 20 feet of beach as a result of this,” said Overton. “It’s not a taking (of public beach) it’s a giving. Do you understand how much it costs for Kahala property? It’s a huge give.”
Overton stressed that the the owner planned to put up a revetment, a sloping rock structure that is less damaging to the beach than seawalls.
But Fletcher said revetments take up more space than vertical seawalls, in addition to eroding the beach.
City archival photographs of Kahala show that there was once a white, sandy beach that stretched from the Ewa end of Kahala Avenue to the Waialae Country Club. Long-time residents say that the neighborhood was home to modest beach houses with open lots, and acreage that was leased to farmers to grow vegetables and raise pigs.
But the kamaaina feel of Kahala has given way to multi-million dollar vacation homes hidden by large walls that surround the property and block any view of the ocean from Kahala Avenue. There is very little beach left and much of it is only accessible during low tide.
As the tide rises, people sit in the public beach walkways because the beach disappears.
Notably, Kawamoto, the Japanese businessman who once owned more than two dozen properties along Kahala Avenue, tore down many of the homes and walls — and controversially, allowed many of the lots to degrade.
The two empty lots that Lee bought are assessed at nearly $10 million. Kawamoto sold the majority of his Kahala real estate portfolio to Alexander & Baldwin for $98 million in 2013.
Some area residents have argued that the sale opened up a window of opportunity to reclaim the public beach.
John and Lucinda Pyles, who have lived in the neighborhood for four decades, submitted comments last year on the environmental assessment, arguing that the 4400 block of Kahala Avenue still had beach worth preserving and that it was frequented by local residents. Furthermore, there are seven vacant lots on that block which potentially provides an opportunity to take down the shoreline structures and restore the beach, they said.
“With fifty percent of the shoreline in this area unimproved, it would seem that there might be a unique window of opportunity to disarm the beach in this area without creating a threat to existing improvements,” the Pyles wrote in testimony.
Does “the city and state have a responsibility to preserve and, in this case, restore the public trust resource that is the natural shoreline if the opportunity arises to do so?” they continued.
But in a follow-up interview, Lucinda Pyles said that she has since come to accept the new seawall. She stressed the need to protect private property interests.
“I would love to see every seawall on Kahala Beach torn down, but I think it would threaten people’s homes,” she said. “It would be too dramatic.”
Asked if Kahala was a lost cause, UH’s Fletcher said no.
“There is always hope,” he said, noting that Kahala is a wealthy community and beachfront owners could band together to mine sand from offshore and do a beach replenishment project.
“But if they are going to manage the Kahala shoreline property by property there is no hope. It has to be done as a holistic, environmental solution and conservation has to be the goal,” said Fletcher.
“This is where the City and County should step up and provide leadership and they are not.”