The task of moving people away from the coast faces a hurdle: economic complexities.

Of the possible responses to ocean level rise – adaptation, mitigation or retreat – managed retreat is arguably the most drastic and inevitable.

It involves moving development away from vulnerable coastlines, potentially at the cost of leaving behind family homes and businesses to be swallowed by the sea. 

Several bills were introduced this legislative session that would have taken big steps toward implementing managed retreat strategies. But by now, all have lost momentum.

The issue is complicated by questions of fairness and timing, and community buy-in is essential.

For example, how should retreat on Oahu’s North Shore compare to retreat in Waikiki? What about the handling of rich developers versus multigenerational residents — and everyone in between? Lawmakers know the clock is ticking but say more study is needed before deciding on statewide solutions.

Sen Lorraine Inouye Civil Beat post crossover panel.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye is chair of the Senate Water and Land Committee. She feels it’s too soon to implement managed retreat strategies on the scale of having the state purchase vulnerable North Shore properties. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

In an early March confirmation hearing, Sen. Lorraine Inouye, chair of the Senate Water and Land Committee, acknowledged that she chose not to hear a bill that would have enabled the state to purchase vulnerable North Shore properties.

“I felt it was not the right time,” she said.

Such consequential action would be better with a system in place to follow, and “we’re not there yet,” she added.

House Bill 756 is the most recent casualty. It would have set up a sea level rise relocation special fund, required the Department of Land and Natural Resources to develop a plan for managed retreat and allowed for the exchange of public land for transferable development rights.

It passed the House and crossed over to the Senate, but the bill was doomed when Inouye decided her committee wouldn’t hear it despite the fact that she was the author of the Senate companion bill. Inouye did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

‘A Very Tough Sell’

The Legislature previously has passed laws related to sea level rise, often in the form of gathering and sharing information about vulnerable areas. 

Two bills still moving this year include Senate Bill 1417, which would require construction in low-lying Kakaako and Kalaeloa to consider the impacts of sea level rise, and Senate Bill 1389, which would beef up real estate disclosure laws related to coastal erosion.

Counties also aren’t waiting. A few are implementing dynamic shoreline setback laws to keep new development far away from the water, and Kauai even floated the idea of taking on managed retreat itself.

But when it comes to figuring out how to manage retreat on the state level, said Rep. Sean Quinlan, “it is a very tough job, and I don’t have the right answer yet.” 

Quinlan represents the North Shore and Koolauloa districts, which are extremely vulnerable to an encroaching ocean. 

Many people in those areas have resorted to mounting their own sometimes illegal defenses such as sand burritos, spray concrete, rock walls — and to an extent, he understands homeowners’ frustrations.

“Those folks at the state level who say, ‘we should let all the houses on the North Shore fall into the ocean,’ would they say the same thing about the highway?” he asked.

If the one main road connecting his district’s communities to each other can be protected, then maybe the houses along it also can be, he said – or at least, it would be hard to tell his constituents otherwise.

A surfer at Rocky Point, on Oahu's North Shore, walks past a house after it collapsed and slid onto the beach below the night before,Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
A surfer walks past a house that collapsed on to the beach on the North Shore. (Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2022)

Another major obstacle with managed retreat is concern about bailing out beachfront millionaires.

“If you look at the problem statewide, and we talk about eminent domain-ing thousands upon thousands of beachfront homes, we could be getting into the billions of dollars here,” Quinlan said. 

Paying that with taxpayer money “is a very tough sell,” he added.

Transferable Rights

Rep. Gene Ward cited similar worries, referencing the special fund that would be created by HB 756. He noted that homeless people who live on the beach – many of whom are Hawaiian – would get nothing from the bill, while wealthy homeowners would be given money to relocate.

“If you’re a beachfront owner, this is a super bill for you,” Ward said in opposing the measure during a floor session.

Quinlan stressed that not just rich people would benefit.

“There’s a slight perception that beachfront owners are all very, very wealthy. And it’s true – some of them are very, very wealthy. But a lot of them are just regular people,” he said.

The tricky part is devising an equitable way to give out money. 

“One way to get around that is what’s known as transferable development rights,” said Chip Fletcher, interim dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology at the University of Hawaii Manoa.

This provision would have been included in HB 756, and a major advantage of it is that money wouldn’t exclusively come from the state. 

Coastal residents could all be given a “bank” of development rights – “for instance, put an extra floor or two on a building to break through a height restriction,” explained Fletcher – which developers could then purchase from each property owner to use where they see fit.

These transferable rights could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, said Fletcher. After selling their allotted rights to a developer, property owners could then be required to vacate.

As coastal residents move in search of new homes, the system would ensure a more direct correlation between the number of these buyers and the amount of development available to accommodate them. 

Per a law passed last year, counties are now able to transfer development rights for reasons related to climate change-induced flooding and coastal erosion. 

“This is one very powerful tool, but there are going to have to be other powerful tools as well,” Fletcher said. Not to mention the task of figuring out how to equitably distribute these transferable development rights in the first place.

Waikiki Beach Sand replenishment near visitors enjoy the beach. Just before the Kapahulu groin area.
Waikiki’s slim but economically prosperous shoreline needed some replenishment in 2019. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

“The devil is definitely in the details,” said Wayne Tanaka, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii. But he doesn’t think that means lawmakers should keep postponing the inevitable.

Sea walls are expensive and temporary when put against Mother Nature, he said, even when it seems more politically appealing in the short term to let constituents build and maintain their walls.

“I think we’ve let this problem fester for too long,” he said.

To help make sense of these challenges, the Office of Planning and Sustainable Development is starting a new report this year. It’ll be the sequel to the agency’s 2019 report on the feasibility of managed retreat and will lay out more concrete policy and financing options for pursuing it. 

‘The 11th Hour’

Fletcher agrees that time is running out as the ocean encroaches on the islands. is rising quickly around the world, and that’s especially true around Hawaii, he explained.

“I think we are right up against the 11th hour,” he said.

The Greenland ice sheet that currently stores much of the world’s frozen water holds so much that it gravitationally pulls the ocean up to it. As the ice sheet melts, this gravitational pull lessens, allowing water around the planet to distribute in more distant places.

“So, get this – Greenland melts, but sea level goes down around Greenland, meaning that it goes up in more distant places like Hawaii,” Fletcher said. “It’s very complex.”

This puts Hawaii and its myriad coastal communities in a particularly vulnerable position.

And without a carefully thought-out system for managing retreat, according to the 2019 OPSD report, the chaos that ensues “may derail retreat in the long-run to the severe and irreversible detriment of the State, its precious, natural resources and citizens.” 

It’s the same principle Inouye articulated at her committee’s hearing in early March: better to plan thoroughly than to rush and make irreversible decisions.

“We need to get our feet wet first,” she said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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