KEKAHA, Kauai — The beach outside Kaleo Kaohelaulii’s oceanfront home is getting bigger.

kauai locator badgeIt’s a welcome side effect of the construction of the nearby Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor, which interrupts the natural sand movement along the Kekaha coast. The harbor traps sand, leading the shoreline on one side to erode while the beach on the other side measurably grows.

Where the beach is widening, the harbor is delaying the effects of sea level rise, according to University of Hawaii climate change expert Chip Fletcher. It’s a paradox that’s wedged a degree of psychological distance between some coastal homeowners here and the inevitable consequences of climate change that threaten to submerge their properties sometime this century.

And it’s undermining a possible future county effort to get oceanside residents to relocate inland by swapping land.

“Every beachfront house will eventually fall into the ocean,” said Fletcher, interim dean for academic affairs at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at UH Manoa. “People just don’t realize that they’re doomed.”

Yet as residents here watch the beach expand, some question whether the risk of their houses going underwater is really so imminent. Others have come to think they can cope with shoreline erosion on their own while remaining in their homes — at least for now.

“I don’t wish to move,” said Kaohelaulii, 35, who makes a living weaving prized Niihau shells into lei. “I know that erosion is going to happen and I know it’s going to be soon, but I pray that I get the chance to stay here a little bit longer. I’m blessed to have this place and I don’t think I’ll be running away from it anytime soon.”

The construction of a harbor is causing a strip of Kekaha shoreline to widen, an artificial phenomenon that runs counter to climate change projections. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

Set on a quarter acre, Kaohelaulii’s modest one-bedroom home is one of 76 residential properties in West Kauai at the forefront of a conversation among county planners about what it would look like to offer property swaps to families whose shorefront homes stand to be inundated by up to 3.2 feet of sea level rise that scientists expect to occur this century, possibly as soon as 2060.

Homeowners in this newly designated danger zone did not ask the county to bail them out, and several of those interviewed for this story said they’re against it. But property swapping is a concept that county planners are exploring as they consider the costs of doing nothing — namely, the loss of beaches that are a public trust asset and the displacement of local families.

“The plan would be to clear these properties and structures out of the way so that the natural erosion process can happen and we can have a beach there in perpetuity,” said Kauai County Planning Director Kaaina Hull. “If the houses are collapsing in the water, then it’s another big question of who’s going to clean this up?”

As the surf eats away at the island’s contours, one way of adapting involves demolishing oceanfront homes, businesses, hotels and roads and rebuilding them inland.

But managed retreat, as it’s called, is logistically complicated. It would require tremendous amounts of political will, community buy-in and money. And there’s no blueprint in Hawaii for implementing it on a large scale.

The concept raises a slew of fundamental questions with no easy answers.

“It devastates our family’s legacy here.” — Joel Koetje, coastal homeowner

For instance, if people living in coastal homes need to move back from the shoreline, do taxpayers foot the bill or do the property owners? If government facilitates a way for them to relocate to a piece of raw land, who pays for their access to roads and utilities? Should government incentivize people to retreat proactively before their property reaches the brink of uninhabitability and its value plummets to zero?

In Hawaii, managed retreat has been done or is being seriously contemplated for a handful of coastal roads that have been undermined by erosion, according to Fletcher. But he said there’s no example that he knows of where a government entity in Hawaii has moved a homeowner away from an eroding shoreline.

But managed retreat for homeowners is something that Fletcher said more Hawaii officials and leaders need to be not only thinking about, but acting on.

“Right now what we’re engaging in is unmanaged retreat, but retreat is going to take place regardless because sea level rise is only just starting and it’s not going to stop,” Fletcher said. “If you own a home that is not yet eroding, I guarantee it will. For people who are resisting this right now, maybe their homes will be safe for another 20 years or maybe not. They may come to regret their opposition to dealing with this.”

Last year Kaleo Kaohelaulii inherited an oceanfront home in a section of Kekaha where rising seas are expected to encroach upon coastal neighborhoods. Kauai County is contemplating a plan to take up ownership of vulnerable properties like this one in exchange for a new property farther inland. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022
Last month Kauai County planners came up with the conceptual beginnings of an elective managed retreat strategy for the owners of some of West Kauai’s most vulnerable homes.

Included in a conceptual master plan for Waimea 400, a 417-acre parcel purchased by the county in 2019 for wetland restoration, agriculture, housing and recreation, is the suggestion that a mauka portion of the project site could be used for property swaps.

The West Kauai Community Plan identifies 76 of the most at-risk properties in Waimea, Hanapepe and Kekaha with a zoning designation called the Special Treatment Coastal Edge District. These are the properties that the county would likely consider first for the property swaps, which remain a merely theoretical climate mitigation strategy at this point.

The idea is that the county would give these vulnerable homeowners a place to relocate their families. And the county would tear down their former homes to allow erosion to take place in order to save the beach.

But homeowners like Randy Wolfshagen, an engineer whose Kekaha house stands between Kaumualii Highway and the beach, say the property swap idea is an example of government overreach.

“What I would like county planners to do is justify very specifically what they’re afraid of,” Wolfshagen said. “Displacement of people who have the means to deal with it if they have to? That’s not really their job. This is something they don’t need to spend taxpayer money on. It’s not their fight to fight.”

The property swap concept is only the latest government attempt to manage the risk of coastal hazards in West Kauai’s new Coastal Edge district.

A county ordinance enacted in 2020 narrows the ability of Coastal Edge property owners to build on their land, citing the risks of rising seas, coastal erosion, flooding and the increasing intensity and frequency of storms. 

Any proposed new structure, ranging from a house to a small shed, is now subject to a public hearing and a discretionary permit process through which Coastal Edge landowners would need to demonstrate how the structure would be built to accommodate or withstand coastal hazards. 

It’s less severe than the county’s original proposal to prohibit all new construction on Coastal Edge properties. There was massive pushback against that plan and some homeowners, including Wolfshagen, hired lawyers to fight it.

The shoreline is highly variable along the county’s new Special Treatment Coastal Edge District, according to Chuck Blay, a Kauai geoscientist who studies the movement of sand at many of the island’s major beaches. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022

The shoreline is highly variable throughout the county’s Special Treatment Coastal Edge District, according to Chuck Blay, a Kauai geoscientist who studies the movement of sand at many of the island’s major beaches.

More than sea level rise, the size of the beaches are presently influenced by the Kikiaola Harbor, the Waimea River mouth and seasonal swells, he said.

“There’s no question that sea levels are rising, but there are fluctuations from season to season that move the sand away and then back again and that’s what a lot of people are seeing,” he said. “I think you have to take it one property at a time rather than have a general plan for a whole area.”

​​Man-made structures, Blay says, have so far proven far more influential to shoreline sand movement than factors such as sea level rise and coastal erosion. But with time, he said, that’s likely to change.

When Joel and Kendall Koetje purchased the former Kekaha Sugar Plantation manager’s house in 1993, the property had survived three major storms including Hurricane Iniki, which flooded the house with three feet of water, according to Kendall Koetje.

In more recent years waves have crashed onto the lawn. The Koetjes acknowledge that these coastal hazards are expected to worsen. But with so much invested in their oceanfront property, retreat is unthinkable.

“Why Kekaha and not Hanalei?” said Kendall Koetje, referring to the aftermath of the historic 2018 flood that knocked several homes fronting Hanalei Bay off their foundations and swept one into the sea. Most of the affected property owners have since rebuilt their homes on the soft sands of Hanalei Bay.

“It would just be nice if they would admit that Kekaha is their testing ground because there is so little political clout associated here,” Kendall Koetje said.

The family’s property includes two main residential structures and a guest house — the Koetje’s home, a home for Kendall Koetje’s parents, and a vacation rental. They’ve installed water meters to build three additional guest homes, part of a longer-term vision to ensure housing for their children and future grandchildren.

Although the county nixed its initial proposal to ban new construction on Coastal Edge properties — something the Koetjes also fought with a lawyer — the couple takes issue with the ordinance adopted two years ago that makes it harder for them to get a building permit.

“It devastates our family’s legacy here,” said Joel Koetje, a general contractor. “This is supposed to be our kids’ home for generations. How do you take that away from my family and call it good?”

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