A set of mobile cops will fan out across Oahu’s parks, looking for the rogue operators that are driving residents crazy.

Fed up with rampant illegal commercial activity at the city’s public parks, Honolulu is introducing a new kind of beach-rule enforcement team to be operated by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

The city is hiring five mobile rangers who will roam Oahu identifying problems at the city’s parks. In the next two years, as the new pilot program rolls out, the rangers will go out in pairs to make surprise visits at island beach parks to evaluate trouble spots of various kinds and look for patterns.

Then the city will issue a report about what the rangers have learned and make some decisions about how best to proceed with an enforcement program. That will pave the way for the next step — on-the-ground implementation of the strategy, officials said.

Some love the idea. Others think it is overkill.

Commercial activity at beach parks like Haleiwa will come under closer scrutiny by new park rangers. (Flickr.com/Luke Gordon)

The park rangers will be looking for business ventures operating without permits or authorization on public beaches and parks. These may include paddleboard and kayak rentals, tour buses, surfing and snorkeling classes, food trucks, glamping sites and wedding ceremonies and photography sessions.

Around the island, many local leaders are applauding the new effort to deal with problems that they say have plagued parks for decades, leading to over-use of facilities, trash-dumping and tense encounters between local residents and entrepreneurs of various stripes.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Kathleen Pahinui, chair of the North Shore Neighborhood Board.

The city is still working out the details of how the program will operate, Parks Director Laura Thielen told a City Council committee, adding that park officials are studying how park rangers operate in other places in the country to see which system would be the best fit for Oahu.

She said they are investigating whether the park rangers should be armed or educational, looking for civil infringement of the law and giving citations or pursuing criminal charges as well.

“Some parks departments have full police powers,” she said. “They may carry guns. They may be just like a police officer but they are a park ranger. At the other end of the spectrum are people who say we just want someone there to educate, and that’s it. They don’t have any enforcement powers.”

The park ranger program is being funded with $822,000 Honolulu received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act’s assistance to state and local governments.

Leina Diamond, who recently received a master’s degree in criminal justice, has been hired to serve as the manager of the new program. Four other rangers, who the city is looking to hire, will report to her.

“We are looking to take an island-wide approach to monitoring unauthorized commercial activities in city parks,” Diamond told City Council members. “Parks are such a valuable asset to us, and to our communities, so when issues like this get out of hand, we can see how it infringes on the public’s recreational use, how overuse and misuse can greatly degrade the quality of our parks and, at the end of the day, can be in violation of our city rules and regulations.”

The city began cracking down on unauthorized commercial activities about 10 years ago, when it banned them at Kailua and Kalama beach parks. Residents were complaining that up to seven kayak rental companies were running mobs of tourists out to the island bird sanctuaries, causing environmental degradation and dangerous traffic patterns in residential areas.

But stopping the activity in one place caused it to balloon someplace else and led to passage of more laws amending the original measures to add more beaches to the protected list.

Bill 38, passed in April of last year, prohibited business operations on beach parks from Waimanalo to Makapuu, restricting tour bus stops and wedding photography.

The most recent ban affects Kokololio Beach in Haaula, where residents said 25-passenger tour vans were disgorging tourists onto a secluded beach. After dozens of people testified and 250 signed a petition in support of the measure, which was introduced by Heidi Tsuneyoshi, Bill 48 passed in December and took effect at the end of the year.

Other beaches with restrictions on commercial activity include Sunset Beach, Ehukai, Pupukea, Waimea Bay, Haleiwa and Kaiaka Bay.

Hauula residents have raised concerns about the influx of tourism at Kokololio Beach.
Hauula residents have raised concerns about the influx of tourism at Kokololio Beach. (Courtesy: Desirree Madison-Biggs)

The restrictions on illegal park operations provide for a penalty of up to 30 days in jail and/or a $500 fine, according to parks department spokesman Nathan Serota, who said the park ranger assessment will be evaluating whether those penalties are appropriate.

Not everybody is happy with increased enforcement by city officials, however. Some people worry the prohibitions on commercial activity in parks could injure tourism by making Hawaii less attractive to visitors or simply encourage more tourist to rent cars and tool around on their own, adding to traffic congestion.

It could also put some tourist-based companies out of business, which would cause job loss.

The way officials have tried to solve the problem made it worse, some said.

“I think they have gone too far with the total bans of the beaches,” said Carey Johnson, of Custom Island Tours, in an email. “They have totally banned tour companies from 10 miles of coastline on the east side of the island, and 9 miles of coastline on the North Shore, and this in addition to the state ban from all state parks and beach parks. So it makes tour companies really desperate to find places that they are even allowed to take their guests to. And it confines the tour companies to only a few spots which then makes it seem crowded at those spots, instead of the tour companies being spread out to multiple locations.”

Long-time tour guide Greg Arndt, a Hawaiian studies scholar who takes visitors around in a small van, said he feared the city was sending “armies out to get us.”

He said he is very respectful of the environment everywhere he goes, and that it is difficult now to be told he must drive by beautiful places but not park there to show people the sites. Visitors ask to stop to see them but he has to tell them they are not allowed to do so, which disappoints them.

“It’s so sad,” he said. “If you ride on my van you would see most of these areas are not problem areas.”

Kimeona Kane, chair of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board, said he and other area residents understand that some of the operators are good and appreciate that entrepreneurs are doing what they need to do to make a living but that the problem is that others are doing it “without the respect.”

With emotions running high in these situations, however, city officials are worried that park rangers could find themselves in dangerous situations as they confront entrepreneurs accustomed to using parks as places of business.

“Even if they have no enforcement authority, walking into situations where you are telling people, ‘You can’t do that,’ those sometimes turn violent,” Thielen told the city council.

She said that the park rangers will be equipped with radios that may be connected to the Honolulu Police Department so they can call for back-up. She said they may be trained in self-defense and de-escalation tactics and also might be taught how to administer Narcan to people who are overdosing.

She said that these encounters may also raise questions of whether the entrepreneurs are paying taxes.

“Either you are paying taxes or you are not, and that may open up a new can of worms,” she said.

City Council Chair Tommy Waters said he thought the program is a good idea, and would help relieve stress on the police who “are asked to do so much,” he said.

But he also expressed concern about the dangers the park rangers could face.

“Sometimes it can escalate,” he said. “That’s a real issue because we don’t want to put the parks people in harm’s way.”

Council member Andria Tupola, who represents the Waianae coast, asked about how the park rangers will interface with the Honolulu Police Department. Thielen and other officials said they are working closely with the police.

But Thielen said the city is also considering giving park rangers separate enforcement authority independent of the police to deal with problems in city parks.

“What we will do in the next two years is assess where the city should put enforcement powers in the Department of Parks and Recreation,” she said. “I think we are all leaning toward the answer is yes.”

This tougher enforcement is necessary because unlicensed surfing and snorkeling schools could be putting tourists’ lives at risk, said Pahinui.  She said that she and other North Shore residents did a spot check of 30 water-sports companies operating in their area a few years ago and found that only about one-third had the proper city and state licenses.

Kane said he would like to see the program include much more of an educational component. He said many local residents were enthusiastic when they heard about the program and wondered if the program could involve cultural and educational outreach and not just law enforcement.

“A park ranger should have some historic and cultural knowledge, not just be sitting in a car waiting to ticket someone,” he said.

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