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The Kahala Hotel and Resort has been a fixture at the Koko Head end of Kahala Avenue since its opening in 1964. It is the only hotel in East Oahu, located on the far side of Diamond Head, just minutes away but a world apart from the crush of visitors in Waikiki.
Taking advantage of its exclusive location, the 338-room hotel describes itself as “an oasis of luxury and elegance … fronting an 800-foot stretch of pristine, white-sand beach.”
The hotel’s plan is to “rejuvenate” and “enhance” the area and at the same time replace a short-term revocable permit with a perpetual easement to utilize the public beach and shoreline area for commercial purposes.
The plan is drawing increased scrutiny and pointed questions from residents worried that it will, in the long run, lead to reduced public access.
“I’m very concerned that the entire thrust of this is basically a privatization of prime beach-front land to take it from the public and give it to a private money-making enterprise,” Kahala resident and beach user Jim Nicolay told Hawaii News Now last month.
The hotel’s draft environmental assessment anticipates the project will have no significant environmental impact, and will do no harm to the physical or cultural environment, to the ocean or sea life, or to public use of the area. Those claims, and any public comments received prior to the deadline, are currently under review by the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.
The public comment period on the plan ended two weeks ago. If approved, the hotel’s request for a perpetual easement will be submitted to the Board of Land and Natural Resources for its review and action.
The Kahala Hotel was purchased by Resorttrust Hawaii, wholly owned by Japan-based Resorttrust Inc., in October 2014 for a reported price of more than $282 million.
At the same time, the Board of Land and Natural Resources reissued a revocable permit “for recreational and maintenance purposes” to the new owners. The permit covers 40,460 square feet or .93 acres, consisting of a shoreline setback area between the public beach and the hotel. The hotel buildings themselves are on land leased from Kamehameha Schools. That lease runs for another 45 years, expiring at the end of October 2062.
According to a project summary that introduces the draft environmental assessment prepared by the hotel’s consultant, PBR Hawaii & Associates, the hotel is “requesting a non-exclusive easement from the State of Hawai’i for further enhancement of the State Parcel and the public shoreline including approval for certain ongoing activities.”
That sounds innocuous enough. But elsewhere in the 64-page environmental assessment and more than 150 pages of appendices, additional relevant details are disclosed that have advocates of beach access on edge.
First, the hotel is requesting to nearly triple the area covered by the proposed easement from the original nine-tenth’s of an acre, to a total of 2.65 acres. The area being added includes the state-owned land mauka of the shoreline fronting the hotel and its parking structure, as well as the two groins, or small man-made peninsulas, that jut seaward on opposite ends of the beach, along with the small island on the Diamond Head end, and an existing raft anchored offshore at about the middle of the beach.
Second, the hotel’s request to utilize the groin on the western end of the beach, located on the boundary between the hotel and the adjacent Kahala Beach apartments, is not simply for recreation and maintenance, as its preliminary summary implies. The hotel is also asking to set up an area on the ocean end to perform commercial weddings. This would be in addition to two areas it already uses for weddings, including a semi-permanent gazebo just to the side of the open air Plumeria Beach House Restaurant, and another along the boundary between the hotel and the golf course.
Although acknowledging increased wedding activity, the environmental assessment does not quantify the planned increase. More weddings with more people in more places can be expected to create more access issues, but the hotel doesn’t provide any numbers that would allow a fair assessment of expected problems, if any.
Third, the hotel is asking permission to “preset” chairs and other beach equipment on the public beach, something it has already been doing, although the practice was specifically prohibited by the terms of its 2014 permit.
Presetting in front of Waikiki hotels has been a source of conflict between hotels and the general public because it reduces the beach area available for use by the general public. Responding to concerns raised by the Legislature, the Department of Land and Natural Resources worked with the large Waikiki hotels — The Outrigger, Royal Hawaiian and Moana Surfrider — to reach an agreement limiting presetting.
This conflict has gotten more pronounced as erosion and sea level rise have taken their toll on Waikiki Beach.
According to DLNR’s report to the Legislature, the hotels and their vendors have agreed that presetting of beach equipment, including chairs, umbrellas, towels or mats, will no longer be permitted. The new guidelines provide that beach equipment can be set out on the public beach in approved zones only when rented by a customer and once the customer is physically present.
The Kahala Hotel’s current practice is to set out approximately 100 lounge chairs on the beach by about 6:30 a.m., which preempts use of a substantial portion of the beach by the general public. In addition, the hotel has set up semi-permanent beach cabanas — tents with space for two lounger chairs — along the edge of the beach and within the area covered by its existing permit. It is now asking for these and other types of commercial activity in these areas to be legitimized by the requested easement.
Although the hotel says its lounge chairs are available for use by the general public without charge on a first come-first served basis, there is no signage to let members of the public know of the policy. If an area is public but the public doesn’t know, is it really public?
I should disclose that my wife and I walk along the beach and the shore in front of the hotel almost every morning, and have never had a problem. Groundskeepers and maintenance personnel have been uniformly friendly at that time of day, and there have been only a few times when hotel receptions were held out on the lawn, which made public access a little tricky, but not impossible.
Those who walk at other times of day, however, have reported being told to avoid areas where wedding ceremonies were being set up or performed, indicating the potential for conflict with the pending request for an additional location where weddings will be performed.
In addition, high tides already limit access to the public beach, which requires walking through the hotel grounds. These are generally perceived as hotel property and many residents are hesitant to enter, although the lawn area is mostly within the state setback area covered by the current permit.
Advocates of public beach access worry the hotel’s planned expansion and enhancement project was not vetted by the area’s neighborhood board, or by community groups and agencies with known concerns for ocean and beach access, prior to the completion of the draft environmental assessment. And they are concerned the environment assessment does not include any detailed and robust discussion of public access, which is mentioned only in passing asides.
Of course, the beach in front of the Kahala Hotel is not as heavily used as Waikiki Beach, and conflicts will be fewer. However, this will change over time, especially during the term of the requested perpetual easement.
And there are other issues needing discussion, such as how to determine the reasonable fee to be paid by the hotel for its use of nearly 3 acres of prime, oceanfront public land. The hotel currently pays $1,244 per month, but it is common for commercial users in other areas to pay a percentage of their earnings. This will need further airing as the hotel’s request moves forward.
Although the opportunity to comment on the hotel’s environmental assessment has already passed, there will be additional opportunities for public questions and comments if the draft is approved and heads on for consideration by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.
In the meantime, the matter will be on the agenda for the next meeting of the Waialae-Kahala Neighborhood Board at 7 p.m. June 15, according to board chairman Richard Turbin. The board meets at Wesley United Methodist Church, 1350 Hunakai St.