Community members, government officials and business executives say recent land board decisions indicate a new approach to the tough decisions that come with sea level rise.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources had for years planned to spend millions of dollars to haul sand from the bottom of the ocean to widen the beach in front of Kaanapali resorts. 

Concerned community members had vowed to fight the project, one of the largest proposed beach replenishment efforts in Hawaii history. They worried that digging up all that sand would harm one of West Maui’s most vibrant reefs that had fed families for generations, while setting a precedent that the government would foot the bill to protect private property that could one day be flooded by rising seas.

But last month in a sudden change of course, the Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously rejected the plan, which up until that point had been supported by state officials for nearly a decade.

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“It’s like our voice is being heard now,” West Maui resident Kekai Keahi told Civil Beat. 

The state and the Kaanapali resorts initially entered into a partnership to split the bill for an $800,000 study on the beach replenishment. They then proposed to share the cost of the estimated $10 million project.

But on a Friday in March, when the government body tasked with protecting land and oceans for future generations finally got to discussing the topic, it took just five minutes to reach a decision. The seven-member board, now led by Dawn Chang, all voted against it.

Wayne Hedani, who runs the Kaanapali Operations Association, said he was “caught flat footed” by the decision. He had been told that the March meeting would be routine so he hadn’t even prepared to testify. 

Kaanapali was the first destination resort area developed on Maui. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

The state is now in the process of returning roughly $400,000 back to the resort group to repay its portion of the project’s study. And Maui residents, hotel executives and even government officials are trying to make sense of the decision, and whether it signals a sudden shift in the way government leaders will approach the tough decisions that arise when Hawaii’s beaches and oceanfront property are at risk of being swallowed up by sea level rise.

Both business executives and community members on opposite sides of the Kaanapali project point squarely at Chang, who was appointed in December, as a major driver of the change. On the same day that the board shot down the Kaanapali agreement, it made another groundbreaking decision when weighing how to penalize an Oahu oceanfront homeowner repeatedly accused of illegally piling sandbags and boulders in front of his house to stop it from falling into the ocean.

The board gave him a choice: pay record-high fines of $188,000 or haul the house and any trace of utility lines off the oceanfront property. 

“Our first obligation is to protect access to the public beach — it’s not to protect private property,” Chang told the homeowner during the March meeting.

The south end of Kaanapali has been harder hit by coastal erosion. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

The decisions are sending ripples into the government departments that the board oversees.

Michael Cain, administrator of the state’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said in an interview that the March meeting made it clear that the board is willing to back up state employees when they take a firm stance against private property owners who try to harden the shoreline. Oceanfront homeowners have been using sand bags or building sea walls to protect their private property, which then end up destroying the adjoining beaches. 

“There are concerns like, why is the state investing millions to protect resort properties and taking a hard line against private properties?” said Cain. “There’s definitely differences between the cases, but it’s a legitimate question.”

Cain’s office had previously been working with the Kaanapali resorts on the project that aimed to make the stretch of pristine white sand as wide as it was back in the 1980s — from about 41 to 78 feet. He is now working to understand how the decision might affect other projects on the table, including the ongoing battle to save Waikiki Beach, where the state and hotel owners have already paid to haul in sand and build structures in the ocean made of concrete and rock to stop sand from getting sucked away. 

On Maui, several other groups of private property owners are considering smaller projects to haul in sand to temporarily prop up beaches in Napili, Kahana and Honokowai, all of which would also need final approval from the BLNR to move forward.  

Royal Kahana Maui Condos
Stabilization efforts were in place at the Royal Kahana Maui condos. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022)

The situation underscores the challenges that government officials face in figuring out how to respond to a monumental threat that politicians for years have largely tried avoid. Right now, other than the state’s firm stance against building seawalls that protect homes but erode the beach, Cain said there isn’t a clear and consistent policy that guides how the state should respond when the ocean inundates beaches and coastal property. 

Instead, decisions about what should be done — and who should pay for them — are made on a case-by-case basis. And even then, there are few options, which include building the structures in the ocean to hold sand in place, hauling in sand to rebuild beaches as a temporary fix or simultaneously working to restore sand dunes that are the natural barrier to protect the land from wind and waves.

“For me, that’s always the ideal,” Cain said. “But that’s also difficult given that much of our coastal area is developed, and nobody wants to give up an inch of land.”

At some point, the state is also going to have to face the inevitable — that some property owners will have to move their buildings out of the way of the rising sea. But in the meantime, Cain said there will be studies launched to help guide a comprehensive policy on how the government should respond to the pressures of beach erosion and sea level rise.

Some community members were concerned that the state didn’t have a clear policy about where it would pay to restore beaches. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

With the new BLNR leadership, he said he’s also preparing for less of an emphasis on engineering details and more of a focus on whether projects have been developed with community collaboration and a careful eye on the impact to cultural and historical resources.

“That has come across pretty strongly, and that’s something we’re trying to get out to the consultants who work on these projects,” said Cain. “In the past, it’s been 80% engineering, 20% community, and it needs to shift.”

In Kaanapali, the resorts are also trying to figure out what to do next, a process that could take months because they need to once again reach a consensus with several business owners.

Hedani said the resorts could explore paying for the entirety of the project themselves, but there’s still no guarantee that the state would grant them the necessary permits to move forward. He also knows there are few other options, although one he may explore is the possibility of looking to install an artificial reef in hopes of growing more coral to protect the beach in the years to come.

“It would happen after my lifetime,” he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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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