For the first time in almost a decade the state is allowing the construction of a 400-foot long, football field-length seawall revetment for the Hololani Resort-Condominium in West Maui. Longtime community members are outraged with the decision.

Granting permits and easements for this seawall would set a horrible precedent and initiate a domino-effect as flanking erosion pushes successive beachfront owners to replace sandbags and open beaches with increasingly hardened structures. In West Maui alone, seawalls have contributed to the loss of approximately four miles of beaches to coastal armoring.

On March 28, the Senate Water and Land committee voted 3-2 to authorize the easement for the Hololani Resort seawall construction. Sens. Gil Riviere (North Shore) and Lorraine Inouye (Hawaii island) voted in opposition, noting that the same committee had just accepted the state Sea Level Rise report and the approval of a seawall would send the wrong message.

Pohaku Park, Kahana, West Maui. The author is worried about the building of a seawall at a nearby resort condominium. Flickr: Forest and Kim Starr

Most of the seawall supporters are Hololani condominium owners and many, if not most, of the Hololani condominiums are Airbnb-type vacation rentals. Sen. Laura Thielen, who voted for the seawall with reservations, spoke specifically to owners who newly moved to Hawaii and warned them that beach access is a public right.

Glenn Kamaka, a kupuna who flew from West Maui to attend several state hearings last week took offense to Hololani Resort representatives’ statement that “they will give public beach access.”

As a Hawaiian whose family has fished the West Maui coastlines for generations, Kamaka said you do not “give me” access. Besides, he has beach access, and what they are really giving him is access to their wall, which will be going out 20 feet onto state submerged lands.

The time is now for the state to act quickly and adopt managed retreat policies. Government officials must balance our natural tendency to persevere against the social and economic costs and risks to personal safety posed by continual development in vulnerable locations.

The reality is most resorts built in Napili to Kaanapali were built on sand dunes. In 2014, the Hololani Resort received approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources to construct a seawall which is contrary to State policy in general. Four years later we know the ill effects of coastal armoring, much of which is documented in the SLR report the state adopted last year. Now we have much more information that a seawall at this location is no more appropriate than any other location in Hawaii and will set bad policy for the future of Hawaii.

Build Resilience Today

The state needs to focus on building resilience today but also prepare for the future. This will require tough decisions. Some areas will be too vulnerable, despite our best efforts to hold back the sea. Infrastructure and homes will need to be moved away from the threat and the shore opened up to the public.

The political obstacles to this strategy will be severe in many places, but consideration of them should begin now. Tourists come to Hawai’i to enjoy our beaches not our seawalls.

Rather than rely solely on coastal armoring structures, policy makers will need to turn increasingly to land use reform and a policy of managed retreat from the shorelines. These policies avoid disasters by building resilience, preventing or limiting coastal development in vulnerable locations, and reducing the impact of coastal hazards on infrastructure.

Such proactive non-structural solutions are often more cost effective than coastal armoring over the long-term as they do not require ongoing maintenance, re-building, or repair.

We need to think about our beaches and coastlines as one big, interconnected ecosystem.

A long-term policy of managed retreat can limit a community’s exposure to coastal hazards, save lives and limit the expenditure of public funding on vulnerable infrastructure and response mechanisms

We need to think about our beaches and coastlines as one big, interconnected ecosystem. The water and sand move with the currents, swells and seasons, all supporting a balance of life that has evolved together for thousands of years.

When we disrupt that system by altering the shoreline, it impacts the entire coastline. Creating a structure to collect sand in one area will deplete sand in another. I think the best that we can do is remove all the man-made structures that are disrupting this system and try to regain some type of natural balance again. Yes, that means retreating and removing buildings. Also keep in mind that the beautiful, coarse beach sand that we all love come from coral reefs and parrot fish. Healthy coral reefs and uhu populations are beach making machines, so we also need to focus on bringing back our coral reefs. Buildings can be moved, ecosystems cannot.

Editor’s note: Tiare Lawrence is a candidate for state House District 12 (Spreckelsville, Pukalani, Makawao, Kula, Keokea, Ulupalakua, Kahului).

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