Molokai’s only community college campus may need to relocate because of rising seas brought on by climate change.

The Molokai Education Center, which is affiliated with the University of Hawaii Maui College, sits on the south shore in Kaunakakai, just across the street from the ocean. The school serves more than 200 students on its 5-acre campus.

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It is the only higher-education institution on Molokai. But the long-term prospects for the campus’ current site are grim.

“As a glimpse of the future, there are already instances of properties experiencing flooding and erosion impacts during high tides, and particularly during the summer king tide season,” Tara Owens, a science and technical advisor to the Maui County Planning Department, said about Kaunakakai. “The expectation is that these types of conditions will expand and become more frequent as time goes on.”

The Hawaii Sea Level Rise Viewer shows potential exposure to high-tide flooding at the campus with about 3 feet of sea level rise in Kaunakakai, Owens said. That milestone is expected to happen in the latter half of the century, but 6 feet of sea-level rise also is plausible by the end of the century.

The Molokai Education Center could become inundated by sea water if ocean levels rise. State lawmakers are considering a proposal to relocate the campus. Screenshot Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System

Sen. Lynn DeCoite proposed Senate Bill 3340 this session which would relocate and expand the Molokai Education Center on 14.5 acres in Kalamaula, a central area of the island that would not be threatened by rapid sea level rise.

The Molokai campus also is nearing its maximum capacity for enrollment on the campus, according to the bill.

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The Molokai Education Center currently enrolls the highest percentage of Native Hawaiian students out of all 10 UH campuses. The college also hosts distance learning options that include broadcasting classes on Spectrum cable channel 55 and the opportunity to attend courses outside of the main campus.

Kalamaula was the first Hawaiian homestead community. Those lands are adjacent to the lot DeCoite is proposing the state purchase for the Molokai Education Center.

The suggested 14.5 acre lot is currently owned by Kamehameha Schools, but is surrounded by a community of Hawaiian homestead owners, DeCoite said.

Kā‘eo Duarte, vice president of Kamehameha Schools Community and Aina Resiliency group, supports this expansion project and said he looks forward to working with the UH.

“Advancing post-secondary education and career pathways is critical to resilient communities,” he said.

The exact location and price of the project would be determined if the bill passes this session. SB 3340 proposes entering a long-term lease agreement with Kamehameha Schools to relocate the Molokai Education Center.

“We want to start this conversation now,” DeCoite said, adding that more work would still need to be done to figure out the total cost of the relocation.

Representative Lynn DeCoite gives the invocation before the House floor session.
Sen. Lynn DeCoite wants the state to start planning for the relocation of Molokai’s only college now. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

David Tamanaha, the Maui College vice chancellor for administrative services, said that the Molokai Education Center has received funding from the legislature in the past, but has never physically expanded.

In 2014, the Legislature gave UH about $2.2 million to begin expanding the campus at its current site, but the sum wasn’t used in time because there wasn’t a clearly defined plan of action, Tamanaha said.

He said the university finally decided to spend $350,000 of that legislative appropriation to hire a consultant to begin planning the expansion, but the remaining $1.9 million went back to the state.

Now, the center receives most of its money for repairs from a UH fund that sets aside money for minor repairs and improvements at community colleges.

Beyond funding, the center’s expansion plans could also be slowed by zoning and land entitlement issues that still need to be worked out. Tamanaha said the center also needs other approvals from the county that would clear the way for additional water and sewer infrastructure.

The center also needs to acquire a special management area assessment from the Maui Planning Department to build or expand the center because of its proximity to the ocean.

Tamanaha said he and UH project planners went to the early hearings for the expansion project at the beginning of last year, which is where he learned about the “community’s sensitivity over developing property that is close to the ocean.”

“We really appreciate this effort because now that will give us the opportunity to start to think about planning the future,” Tamanaha said. “It would be great if we can relocate mauka, but at the same time, we have some more immediate space needs that we still feel like we need to address too, as well as for the community and the kind of support they need there.”

If SB 3340 is passed this session, he said the UH could begin planning in July. But a relocation wouldn’t begin right away.

“The college will take the necessary time and invest resources to engage with the community before any decision is made on moving the current Molokai Education Center mauka,” UH Maui College Chancellor Lui Hokoana said.

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