The rules govern development near shorelines on the Valley Isle.

Planning officials are paving the way for some big changes with how the local government controls development and construction projects close to and along Maui’s coastlines.

Maui County locator map

The rule changes are the culmination of months of sometimes contentious meetings between Maui County planning officials, volunteers on the Maui Planning Commission and residents ranging from shoreline advocates to scientists to tourism industry representatives who spent hours scouring the proposed rules.

They were set in motion after the Maui Planning Commission voted last month to update the special management area and shoreline rules. Officials are now processing all the changes and putting together a key map that will allow landowners to more quickly learn whether their properties are subject to more careful planning and permitting requirements because they’re threatened by sea level rise.

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

The updates make it easier for property owners to make minor upgrades to homes — like painting or redoing carpets. They also making a sweeping change to the way the shoreline setback is determined, by basing the county’s measurement on widely recognized climate change science that shows which areas will be in harm’s way when seas rise.

“The updated SMA and Shoreline rules are more balanced and flexible for homeowners, and incorporate the best available science on sea level rise to bolster coastal resilience,” County of Maui Planning Director Kathleen Ross Aoki said in a news release. 

Maui’s original rules were created in the 1970s and are supposed to “preserve, protect and, where possible, restore” coastlines and beaches. The special management area falls under heightened protection because it’s near the shoreline, generally extending mauka to the nearest highway.

The complicated SMA rules guide permitting requirements and what can and can’t be built in the area, ranging from big projects like entirely new structures to minor repairs on existing buildings.

Many hotels and resorts were built along Maui’s coastline decades before governments started planning to face the climate crisis. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

From the perspective of some residents, the rules haven’t been effective enough. Islanders in recent years have become increasingly aware of the mounting threats to the Valley Isle’s coastlines, from private landowners illegally blocking access with gates to seawalls that protect one estate at the expense of everyone else. Those tensions are only expected to grow as sea level rise begins to swallow more coastal properties in the decades to come. 

In what some scientists and shoreline protection advocates see as a win, the new rules change the way that the county determines the shoreline setback — a line used to preserve the coastal ecosystem while simultaneously protecting private property mauka of the setback from flooding, high surf and storm surges. 

Previously, Maui County only factored in historical erosion rates when deciding where the setback line was. Under the new rules, the government will factor in a leading scientific model that predicts which areas could be flooded in the future if seas rise by 3.2 feet. That means that much more of Maui’s coastal property will fall into the area along the shoreline that’s more carefully protected from development. 

The Maui Planning Commission can tweak the shoreline rules at any time if sea level rise is expected to be greater. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

At the same time, the rule changes will also make it easier for property owners to take on some repairs or projects that have “minimal to no environmental impact” and cost less than $500,000 over the course of two years, according to a county news release. The county says the new rules will also ease the permitting burdens for property owners who are required by the state to stop using and convert their cesspools. 

Proponents say easing some of the permitting requirements is as a way to reduce backlog and paperwork in the county’s understaffed planning department while making it easier on homeowners. Others, however, worry the changes could mean less scrutiny over projects that might harm delicate coastal ecosystems, which are already facing more threats from the climate crisis.

The county’s planning department says it will scheduled public outreach sessions to educate and train residents on the new rules, which are expected to take effect in a couple months after going through county legal processes.

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