A section of Laie Point has fallen into the ocean. The question now is whether the rockfall was caused by natural erosion or human intrusion. And if it poses any danger to adjoining properties.
In addition, the cliff’s collapse has raised concerns about the city’s ability to enforce laws against illegal vacation rentals.
I happened to be on the beach Oct. 1, the day a section of Laie Point collapsed in the early morning. I was walking next to the point that afternoon and had to step over mounds of torn naupaka plants that littered the sand for yards. At first I thought a lazy landscaping company had tossed all the naupaka onto the beach rather than haul it to the dump. But later I realized the bushes had come careening down the cliff into the ocean along with limestone boulders in the rockslide.
The city Department of Planning and Permitting sent an inspector to 55-064 Naupaka St. on Laie Point where the cliff collapse originated. On Oct. 15, DPP cited property owner Robert E. Dahms Jr., issuing a notice of violation for construction work to install a hot tub, fish pond and paved terrace with a stone fire pit — all done without a variance in the 40-foot shoreline setback on the cliff.
“We all need to understand the importance of the 40-foot ocean setback,” says Realtor and community advocate Choon James, who lives next to Dahms’ property. “It is there for a reason. If they had not violated it year after year this cliff collapse might not have happened.”
James said she heard jackhammering on the property and believes jackhammering into the rock surface of the cliff in front of Dahm’s house to create space for the hot tub and the other features may have caused the rockslide.
James says Dahms’ property manager terraced into the ocean cliff to install the amenities to enhance a vacation rental he had been running for Dahms at 55-064 Naupaka Street as well as for the occasional use of vacation renters at an adjacent studio also owned by Dahms at 55-060 Naupaka Street.
“We are very worried,” James says. “We don’t know how unstable the cliff collapse has made the surrounding area. We don’t know what will happen next.”
DPP spokesman Curtis Lum says another investigator will be going out to Dahms’ property to find out if construction on the cliff’s edge “altered or manipulated the shoreline,” which could result in another notice of violation.
The investigator is still trying to “determine if there was jackhammering used on the construction work he saw in the setback,” Lum says.
The state’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands is also keeping its eye on the site, but is not directly involved. Department of Land and Natural Resources communications director Dan Dennison says, “It is a C and C (city and county) issue as the boulders came from work done on private property.”
In the past, Airbnb.com has listed a vacation rental on Dahms’ property where the rockfall occurred as “Ocean Vista Grande,” offering 12 beds in seven bedrooms to sleep up to 20 people for $1,150 a night.
Dahms lives in Arcadia, California. He owns seven Laie homes, which have been listed on Airbnb.com as vacation rentals. Eric G. Orr manages the vacation rentals for Dahms. Orr is a psychology professor at Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
James sold Dahms one of his properties on Laie Point in 2006. Her daughter- in-law managed the property for him briefly. James says she was not involved with the management.
James says she has always opposed vacation rentals, which she says have proliferated on Laie Point in the last 10 years along with dormitory-type rentals for BYU students. She has lived on Laie Point for 30 years.
City records show Dahms’ properties do not have the required “non-conforming use certificates” to be legal short-term rental units. Since the rockfall, the vacation rental listings have been removed from the Airbnb website.
Property manager Orr says that the rockfall is due to natural erosion rather than “irresponsible actions.” In a written statement to Civil Beat, he says he had seen a fissure in the rock face that had split on the cliff face.
“I believe this was due in part to a very large boulder that was wedged between the two sides,” Orr says. “Presumably this placed a great deal of outward pressure on the fault.”
He sent a YouTube video he says shows the depth of the ocean undercut beneath the fault line.
“While the surprise of the collapse may bring out emotional responses pointing blame, cooler heads can see how the geological factors are very much in play,” Orr says.
I called geologist Chip Fletcher to ask what he thinks. Fletcher earlier had reviewed a video of the Laie Point cliff face and drone photos of the rockfall that were emailed to him by the manager of a Facebook site called Laie Voice.
“It is natural process for a coastal cliff to collapse,” Fletcher says. “Rocky shorelines get constantly undercut at the intertidal zone and the overhanging rock can then collapse. If there was jackhammering, especially near the edge of the cliff, it is totally possible it could have accelerated a natural process of collapse.”
Laie Point was created out of former sand dunes that became cemented into limestone about 80,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch. Fletcher says its is difficult to say if Laie Point’s limestone composition makes it more fragile than other ocean outcroppings. He did note, however, the appearance of a brown region in the cliff-face, which may indicate a weak zone.
Fletcher is associate dean at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa. He specializes in ocean sedimentology and stratigraphy, as well as the geology of reef and coastal systems and sea level rise impact on island communities.
Geologist Glenn Bauer also noted in the pictures of the fallen limestone “a pinkish-colored material behind the white broken blocks of cemented sand” that may be a weaker material that might have contributed to the slide. Bauer says repeated jackhammering near the cliff edge could have quickened a natural erosion collapse.
Bauer is a consultant who formerly worked as a geologist for the DLNR and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply.
Dahms returned my call and said he would talk about his properties in Laie and the rockfall, but only anonymously. I urged him to speak on the record but he declined.
Orr says he has installed safety barricades at the site of the rockfall and is replanting the area and removing the structures that were built within the 40-foot ocean setback.
Norman Thompson III is a Native Hawaiian who was born in Laie and has been throwing nets off the ocean setback portion of the cliff in front of Dahms’ property for years. He calls the rockfall at the fishing spot “heartbreaking.”
Thompson says that the area teems with fish such as aholehole, moi and mullet. He says he and the other habitués of the spot will move on to other places on Laie Point to fish, but he says “it’s sad to think of this kind of change to a cliff face that has been there for thousands and thousands of years.”
Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.
You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?