Maui County has issued a warning and told Lanai Resorts, the company owned by billionaire Larry Ellison, to stop blocking access to Hulopoe Beach Park or risk facing a fine of $100,000, plus an additional $10,000 for each day it goes unaddressed.

Maui County locator map

In Hawaii, it’s against the law for private landowners to block people from traveling through public access routes to shorelines. But in late July, Lanai Resorts shut its metal gate on the road leading to Hulopoe Beach Park, even though it’s required to keep it open 24/7, according to county documents. The only exceptions are during severe weather events or government-ordered emergency closures, like when beach parks were shut down during the pandemic.

“We have information that the park was closed during times when there were no severe weather emergencies or emergency proclamations that required the park to be closed,” the county’s planning department wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to the company.

The gate to Hulopoe Beach Park was closed in late July. Courtesy: Russell deJetley/2022

Although the beach itself, like all other shorelines in Hawaii, is public, Lanai Resorts owns the gate and adjacent park. Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, owns 98% of the island, which he purchased in 2012 for a reported $300 million.

A representative for Pulama Lanai, which is the corporate entity under Lanai Resorts that manages the privately owned land, said the company shut the gate to deal with flooding that submerged parts of the park in the aftermath of July’s historic south swell, which pummeled shorelines across the state. Vehicles were barred from entering, but pedestrians could still access the beach park by walking around the gate, which was reopened July 28, according to the company.

But Russell deJetley, the resident who filed a complaint against the company, said the gate remained shut, even after the flooding in the beach parking lot subsided. At the same time, large boulders lining the road next to the gate prevented anyone with a wheelchair from entering the park while the gate blocked the road.

“As a disabled Native Hawaiian veteran, I just felt like it was just a slap in the face,” said deJetley, who has a neurological condition that sometimes requires him to rely on a mobility scooter, walker or cane to get around.

A representative for Pulama Lanai said the company shut the gate to deal with flooding that submerged parts of the park in the aftermath of July’s historic south swell. Courtesy: Russell deJetley/2022

Hulopoe Beach Park is nestled along Lanai’s southern coast, within walking distance of Manele Boat Harbor. It’s been a favorite spot for locals for decades, a place where generations of families have come to barbecue, camp and enjoy the water. In the 1980s, before the resort was built next door, the developer entered into an agreement with residents, promising that the beach park would always be kept for the public.

In the early part of the pandemic, when governments ordered beaches to close across the state, Lanai’s largest landowner began to block access using barricades, said deJetley. By the end of 2020, the company asked the county, which regulates development in coastal communities, for permission to put up a gate. The county agreed, as long as the gate remained open day and night, unless there was an emergency.

Then this summer, the gate stayed shut more than a week after the historic south swell dissipated, deJetley said. On July 26, he emailed the company about it. When he didn’t hear back, he filed a complaint.

“As of today, the beach park is open,” said deJetley. “However, this probably is not going to be the end.”

DeJetley said flooding had subsided from the parking lot when he decided to file the complaint against the company. Courtesy: Russell deJetley/2022

In Hawaii, the right for citizens to access shorelines has been protected for generations. In 1840, Hawaii’s first constitution set the standard that although all property was owned by the crown, it didn’t function like private property; instead, it belonged to the public, said Richard Wallsgrove, an environmental law professor at the University of Hawaii.

Almost two centuries later, that concept is still ingrained in Hawaii’s laws and state constitution. A number of court decisions have affirmed the public’s right to access beaches and shorelines up to the “upper reaches of the wash of the waves.”

“That history isn’t something you can rewrite just because you decide you don’t want people actually accessing the beach in front of your plot,” Wallsgrove said.

But in recent decades, as Hawaii’s coastlines have been developed with resorts and luxury estates, the clashes between private landowners and the public have escalated.

And it may only be a matter of time before the tensions grow, as communities grapple with the effects of climate change, sea level rise and receding coastlines that creep into private property, said Wallsgrove.

Punaluu Beach park is dotted with dead tree trunks along the sea shore as ocean sea level rises killing the trees.
Punaluu Beach Park is dotted with dead tree trunks along the sea shore as ocean sea level rises killing the trees. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

There are also the other manmade threats to residents’ access, like a lack of beach parking, physical structures like gates and even the lack of investment in proactive enforcement to protect such access.

“Stewarding our resources in a way that makes sense for current and future generations is a lot of work,” Wallsgrove said. “And if we’re not going to devote the resources to it now, we’ll pay the price in the future.”

Instead, the burden often falls on private citizens, like deJetley, to record and report barriers to access, said Lauren Blickley of the Surfrider Foundation, which works to protect beaches and oceans. Until there are more resources in the future, she said that residents who want to protect beach access should continue documenting problems with photographs and videos to submit to the county and post on social media.  

“We do have to be very aware as a community,” Blickley said. “And we have to continue to fight for ensuring that we have longterm access to our coastlines.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Read the county’s warning letter below.

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