Lawmakers are trying to halt building in areas that could be prone to flooding and rising seas in the next century in an attempt to buy Hawaii time to protect itself from the worst immediate effects of climate change.

One bill would push any new development back to 2 meters (about 6.56 feet) above sea level. That could ban new building anywhere from more than 6 feet just off the coast to nearly half a mile from the nearest shore. Within that zone lies some of Hawaii’s most iconic properties, and right on the edge of what could be Oahu’s new south shore if seas rise, sits one of its most beloved shave ice stores.

But restricting construction in areas that could be inundated is a problem for the construction industry. In the case of urban Honolulu, that’s where many new developments, including some affordable housing projects, are planned to be sited.

The Legislature this year is considering several bills to mitigate the effects of rising seas. Lawmakers are putting forward these proposals after failing last year to take many meaningful steps to protect the state from a changing climate.

King tides in 2017 gave Oahu a preview of the quickly encroaching sea. Now, lawmakers are considering how far back to set new developments. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Among those measures, Senate Bill 2381 could have the most immediate impact. The measure would double shoreline setbacks to 40 feet and set that 2 meter height limit for new developments. Sen. Karl Rhoads, who introduced the bill, hopes such a restriction could buy the state more time, at least 100 years in some cases, to plan for and mitigate against rising seas.

He said senators settled on the 2 meter mark based on projections that sea levels could rise that much if temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

If global warming is left unchecked, seas are expected to rise 3.2 feet, about 1 meter, by 2100. But those rising seas will impact islands in the state, and even parts of each island, differently. Oahu could be hardest hit, with over 9,400 acres of land flooded, more than 13,000 residents displaced, and $12.9 billion in economic losses, according to the Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation report.

Many beachfront residents, especially on Oahu’s Windward side, have nowhere to run from rising seas. Compare that to some towns on the Kona side of the Big Island, which may not experience as much inundation.

Rhoads, who wrote the bill, said simply limiting building near the shore doesn’t necessarily help low-lying areas.

“If you’re 40 feet offshore, but you’re in McCully, you’ll still go underwater,” Rhoads said.

One McCully store owner already deals with flooding several times a year.

Jerry Lee, owner of the iconic Waiola Shave Ice store on the corner of Waiola and Paani streets, worries over news of the polar ice caps melting, of seas rising around the world, of the planet getting hotter.

“I know for a fact it’s coming. It’s not superstition,” Lee said of climate change. “Probably not in my generation. But I have to care for my kids. What about their future? You have to think about their future, they’ll have to deal with our problems.”

Maps from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show Waiola Shave Ice right on what would be the new shoreline if seas were to rise about 2 meters. Lee recalls a scene several years ago when neighborhood children drew the new high water mark along the sidewalk with chalk. They drew in fish, waves and a reef too.

The sea rising to Waiola Street could be so far in the future it’s hard to plan. Lee jokes that he’ll have to move his shave ice window to the second floor if waters get too high. He already deals with flooding in the store, which happens about three to four times a year, he said.

Waiola Shave Ice owner Jerry Lee peers thru the window as customers wait for the local favorites.
Waiola Shave Ice owner Jerry Lee already has to deal with regular floods in his store. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Everything there — the counters, the racks of crack seed, the ice chests and iceboxes — are all jacked up a few feet off the ground. The water gets as high as 14 inches, Lee said, and has previously totaled his mother’s car and blew out several freezers.

“That’s our problem right now. Sandbags not going to help you when water comes in every direction,” Lee said.

Lee does what he can to help the environment. He’s switched to paper cups and bowls to hold the shave ice and gives out wooden spoons instead of plastic. He tries not to give out straws unless customers ask, and when they do, he gives them paper straws he’s been experimenting with.

Some businesses could also be struggling with Hawaii’s high cost of living, Lee said.

“Paying high rent, property tax, hard to find people and put them to work — for businesses there’s so much to consider,” Lee said. “Climate change? Probably not on everyone’s list, but it’s happening.”

Pushback From Building Industry

Measures putting restrictions on new buildings are facing pushback from the building industry.

The Building Industry Association of Hawaii says the state should work on relocating government infrastructure like roads and sewers first. That would force private developers to move their projects, Gladys Quinto-Marrone, the BIA CEO, said in written testimony on SB 2381.

“Mandating compliance on private property without government leadership is irresponsible,” she said.

At just a 1 meter rise in sea level, which scientists warn could happen by 2100, parts of Farrington Highway in the west and Kamehameha Highway in the east of Oahu would likely be flooded, cutting off sections of the island.

Maui Mayor Mike Victorino has lamented to legislators two years in a row on the state of Honoapiilani Highway, parts of which he says are quickly falling into the ocean. Projections show much of downtown Kahului flooded with a 2 meter rise in sea level.

Sen. J. Kalani English has said that parts of Molokai are in danger of being cut off. The Department of Transportation has already identified vulnerable roads in need of saving, which could cost a total $15 billion.

At a 2 meter rise, Maili is underwater, and the beach in Ewa Beach would be pushing up against Campbell High School.

Mapunapuna, which already floods during king tides, would be permanently flooded. Moving further into town, the sea could reach King Street. 

The effect is most pronounced in Kakaako and Waikiki, where Magic Island could really turn into an island and Waikiki would be lost.

sea level rise, f
A projected 2 meter rise in sea levels would swallow up much of urban Honolulu, as shown in this map of the area between downtown and University Avenue. Screenshot: NOAA

The problem is, that’s where much of the new construction is already happening.

There are at least five new high rises in various stages of development around Ala Moana Shopping Center alone. One of those, Sky Ala Moana, is planned to be a 400-foot tower with over 400 units.

Another 418-foot tower, The Residences at the Mandarin Oriental Honolulu, is planned for the corner of Kapiolani Boulevard and Atkinson Drive, which could both be inundated with 1 meter of sea level rise.

Just a 1 meter rise could cause hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic losses in the urban core of Oahu.

“It’s difficult, but they keep building down there,” Rhoads said.

He guesses builders are either hoping the state will put in measures to protect new buildings, or that they think they’ll make enough money before needing to deal with climate change.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in 2018 that government should work to harden the urban and tourism centers on Oahu but that beachfront communities around the island may need to move or be cut off.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who has introduced four sea level rise bills in the House, said the state must at least set the strategy for dealing with sea level rise.

“I think that government policy being in place is essential, or the private sector will make decisions on a completely different set of parameters,” Lowen said.

The City and County of Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting also had concerns with SB 2381. They felt that setback requirements should be left up to each county.

“Senate Bill No. 2381 seems to reduce the flexibility appropriate to suit different situations. We have a variety of property types along the shoreline, necessitating a flexible approach,” DPP Director Kathy Sokugawa told lawmakers in written testimony.

DPP also noted concerns with how the bill could restrict development in Kakaako.

Rhoads said both the government and the private sector must retreat at the same time. But he said builders should be wary of putting homes close to the shore.

“If you’re a private sector guy that builds out on the edge of the water and it falls into the water 15, 20 years from now … I don’t even know if you can get insurance for that now,” Rhoads said.

After clearing a preliminary vote by the Senate Water and Land Committee Jan. 29, SB 2381 just needs to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Rhoads, before going to the full Senate for a vote. It would then need to win approval in the House.

Study It

There’s also some private sector pushback on several bills that would require home sellers to disclose if their properties are in areas vulnerable to sea level rise. Maps showing parcels impacted by sea level rise were already created by the Hawaii Climate Change Commission.

However, Ken Hiraki, director of government affairs for the Hawaii Association of Realtors, argued that the commission is not a government entity, and therefore, real estate agents should not disclose those maps.

English said in January that some real estate agents on his home island of Maui already use maps provided by the commission or other applications on the internet showing sea level rise to provide information to their clients.

English has sponsored a bill this year, Senate Bill 3099, which would put into law recommendations found in the Hawaii Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report. While that report was released in late 2017, lawmakers failed last year to pass a similar measure.

Contact Key Lawmakers

The building industry and business community were more supportive of measures that require the state to study climate change, rather than set any restrictions on building.

The BIA testified in support of Senate Bill 3132, which would have asked the Department of Transportation to identify critical infrastructure like airports, harbors and highways and come up with a way to protect them from sea level rise. Senate committees killed that measure Feb. 10.

Measures proposing more aggressive studies are still alive, however.

Lowen introduced House Bill 1856, which tasks the Hawaii Climate Change Commission with producing a more in depth strategy on how to handle sea level rise in Hawaii that’s more granular than the 2017 report.

“The next step moving forward is to figure out what is the best plan to go with,” Lowen said. “We could look at managed retreat. We could look at adaptation. The key thing is to be thinking ahead on it.”

In addition to studying sea level rise and setbacks, lawmakers are also considering a slate of other environment-related bills.

Senate Bill 3150 would create a carbon tax set at $40 per metric ton of carbon dioxide per year. In Hawaii, each person on average is responsible for the emission of 16 to 17 metric tons of carbon annually.

Senate Bill 2629 would require state agencies to participate in carbon offset programs if they use air travel to fly employees for work. Both SB 3150 and SB 2629 were introduced by Rhoads and are awaiting a hearing by the Senate Ways and Means Committee before going to the full Senate for a vote.

House Bill 2657, introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki, seeks to end coal burning in Hawaii. It would halt any power agreements made after June 30 of this year and would prohibit reissuing permits to burn coal after Dec. 31, 2022.

House Bill 2699, introduced by Lowen with support from 32 other representatives, would require state agencies to have all of their light duty vehicles run on clean energy by 2045. House Bill 1859, also introduced by Lowen with 24 others in the House, would create a program at UH to test new toilet and waste treatment technologies.

Those bills are all sitting in the House Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke, which they must clear before moving to the House for a vote by all 51 members.

All bills have until Feb. 28 to move past their last committee hearings.

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