State officials says they already have a plan to tackle parking woes at Makena State Park, but many on Maui are calling for more action.

In response to mounting concerns over rental cars hogging parking spots, spilling onto the roadway and leaving locals competing for parking spaces at one of Maui’s most beloved beaches, some lawmakers are pushing for an intensive study to figure out exactly how much traffic Makena State Park can handle. 

Maui County locator map

A proposal that cleared its latest hurdle in the Legislature Wednesday would direct the state by the summer of 2024 to study how to better control the influx of tourists, manage parking problems and figure out exactly how many people Makena State Park can welcome without hurting the natural environment or cultural resources within the area. 

The effort, known as a carrying capacity study, would also look at whether the existing rules, including the current hours and paid parking for visitors, are working. 

“Locals are the ones working two, three jobs at a time just to afford a carton of eggs,” said state Sen. Angus McKelvey, who represents West and South Maui and introduced Senate Bill 1136. “It’s important that they know if they want to bring their family to Makena, there’s a place for them to park.”

Makena State Park is the most popular state park on Maui. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

The 165-acre state park is home to three different beaches — Oneuli (Black Sand) Beach, Puu Olai (Little Beach) and Oneloa (Big Beach), a pristine stretch of white sand that’s one of the most popular destinations on Maui. The beaches make up the busiest state park on Maui and see an estimated half-million visitors a year

A few years ago, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which manages the park, launched a paid-parking and entrance fee program for anyone visiting the park without a Hawaii ID or operating a tour. But some Maui residents say it isn’t working well enough because tourists still pack parking lots or opt to skip out on paying altogether by parking along the roadway outside, causing traffic headaches. 

As lawmakers have hashed out the proposal in recent months, DLNR has said that it doesn’t think a study is needed. The agency says it already has plans to expand parking options by refiguring existing lots and is looking at starting reservation system for residents and visitors when the current parking management contract is up at the end of the year.

The discussion over how to get a grip — or at least a better understanding of the impact of the crowds at Makena State Park — is the latest attempt by Maui elected officials to combat overtourism and ensure that vacationers aren’t hurting longtime residents’ quality of life or overwhelming natural resources. As the number of visitors flocking to Maui topped record highs in the years before the pandemic, some of the island’s most loved beaches, hiking trails and waterfalls became so crowded that it became difficult for residents to enjoy them or even find parking.

A photo of Cove Park in Kihei, which is almost always packed with tourists taking surfing lessons.
Cove Park in Kihei is almost always packed with tourists taking surfing lessons. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Last year, Maui County announced it would stand up its first-ever paid parking program to charge visitors and allow locals to reserve spots in some of Maui’s busiest destinations. Some of the early suggestions for rollout locations included business districts in Lahaina and Wailuku, as well as South Maui’s Ulua, Mokapu and Kamaole beach parks. 

County officials had pointed to successes elsewhere on island and across the rest of Hawaii, including the National Park Service’s reservation system for sunrise at Haleakala’s summit and the state’s reservation systems at Waianapanapa in East Maui and Haena on Kauai. 

In advance of Wednesday’s hearing, however, DLNR Chair Dawn Chang told lawmakers that the Division of State Parks had never performed a capacity study for the three parks that already have reservation systems: Haena State Park, Waianapanapa and Diamond Head State Monument.

At the end of the year, when the state rebids the parking contract at Makena State Park, it will create a reservation system based on parking data and ensure that there “will always be parking for local residents,” Chang wrote in testimony.

Parts of Makena State Park were acquired by the state decades ago because of residents’ push to protect the area from development. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

The agency asked that the Division of State Parks “be allowed to keep its focus on implementing parking improvements rather than diverting staff time to conduct or oversee a study,” Chang wrote. 

The state’s Office of Planning and Sustainable Development, which has been tasked in the most recent version of the proposal with performing the study, testified that it worried a study wasn’t the quickest way to tackle the parking problems. 

But supporters say there’s much more to it than dealing with vehicle traffic.

“It’s not just about parking,” Rep. Mahina Poepoe, whose district encompasses much of Maui County, said during Wednesday’s hearing. “Parking is one aspect of understanding the environment and what the environment can handle and provide for people.”

As the development of multimillion-dollar condominiums, mansions and luxury resorts boomed in Makena in recent decades, a number of community groups have called for heightened protection of the park and a thorough examination to understand when its natural resources might be pushed to the limits.

Luxury developments are going up near Makena State Park. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

Several Maui residents and officials, including Mayor Richard Bissen and Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai, have thrown their weight behind the current proposal, saying it would work to make the beach more accessible for local families while better protecting the delicate coastal environment. 

The stretch of beaches protected by Makena State Park are some of the last in South Maui where the shoreline is still untouched by resorts or condos that are millions of dollars out of most residents’ financial reach. Decades ago, much of Makena State Park came to fall under the state’s protection because a hui of residents, known as State Park at Makena, or SPAM, fought for years to get the government to acquire a swath of oceanfront lands above the white-sand beach from a developer.

“(Makena State Park) exists because citizens banded together to make it a reality, but they have trouble visiting it,” Albert Perez, who leads the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, told lawmakers. “And when they do, it’s crowded.”

Now that the bill has cleared its last committee hurdle, the full House will take it up for approval. The final version will likely be negotiated by a panel of House and Senate lawmakers before the current session ends in early May.

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

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