The measure has strong backing from the state’s lucrative wedding industry.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi is heading for a showdown with North Shore and Windward Oahu communities over his plan to create an island-wide commercial use system that would wind back established protections for some of the island’s most photogenic and popular beaches.

However it would also provide more protection to some places that have no restrictions today.

The key issue is what right private businesses should have to operate on public lands, and particularly at city-operated beach parks.

These tourist-serving enterprises are scaling up again as visitor numbers rebound. Some 487,000 people arrived on Oahu in March, according to the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

bus denby unpermitted commercial uses Kapiolani Park
Commercial-use buses line the street at Kapiolani Park almost every day, occupying parking spaces. (Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2021)

The mayor’s plan, called Bill 19, now under consideration before the Honolulu City Council, would set limits on city beaches to three commercial tour buses at a time, or 10 in a day, but would restrict them to daytime hours and weekdays. Operators would be required to pay for permits from the city. Violators would be fined.

Blangiardi sees his solution as more equitable than current practice because it avoids the problem of communities shifting the burden from one place to another, with tourism-related businesses ejected from one beach simply transplanting themselves. It would instead create a standardized system that the city would find easier to enforce, he says.

The mayor declined to comment for this article.

Blangiardi’s proposal would overturn laws that have already been passed to ban commercial activity on the beaches at Kailua, Kalama, Waialee, Sunset, Ehukai, Pupukea, Waimea Bay, Haleiwa, Kaiaka Bay, Makapuu, Kaupo, Kaiona, Waimanalo, Hunananiho (Sherwood Forest), Bellows Field and Kokololio.

Over the past decade, as tourism ballooned, these locations were overrun with visitors and commercial enterprises. Residents in each area sought and obtained tight regulatory controls that restricted for-profit activity.

Residents of Kailua Beach, then choked with kayak rental companies fueled by social media, organized about 10 years ago. Hundreds of people turned up at public hearings to ask city officials to ban commercial activities at their beaches, seven days a week.

Despite opposition by the kayak companies and other rental enterprises, the City Council passed Bill 11 in 2012. Then-mayor Peter Carlisle vetoed it, saying it set a bad precedent, but the council overrode his veto and it became law later that year.

Congestion at Kailua beaches eased notably.

“It has served us well,” said Bill Hicks, chairman of the Kailua Neighborhood Board, noting that Kailua still remains on the “tipping point of capacity,” with its parking lots nearly full even without commercial activity. Hicks said Kailua residents would oppose efforts to strip away these protections.

Enacting Bill 19 without protecting the most heavily trafficked beaches would be a “step back for Kailua, Waimanalo and the North Shore,” Hicks said in an interview.

That same view is shared by Kathleen Pahinui, chair of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, who said residents are watching the issue closely and plan to testify in support of exempting beaches there.

“The people with concerns are those with the most popular, populated beaches — Kailua, Waimanalo and the North Shore,” she said in an interview.

Hauula residents have raised concerns about the influx of tourism at Kokololio Beach.
After Hauula residents raised concerns about the influx of tourists at Kokololio Beach, the city council voted to limit commercial activity there last year. (Courtesy: Desirree Madison-Biggs/2022)

Amendment Would Retain Existing Protections

Residents in the beach communities are asking that Bill 19 be passed with an amendment added by Honolulu City council member Esther Kiaaina of Windward Oahu, that retains the restrictions for beaches that are already protected.

The mayor is engaged in a series of town halls around the islands, and the topic has been raised in at least three recent sessions. At a town hall at Kalani High School in east Honolulu on April 13, Waimanalo resident Mialisa Otis reminded Blangiardi that in April 2022 he signed Bill 38, which banned commercial activity from Waimanalo to Makapuu.

Blangiardi said that he had always intended to establish an island-wide system, a point he made in a recorded statement at the time he signed Bill 38 into law.

“I went out to Waimanalo,” he said. “I saw what was going on. It was overrun. But I don’t really believe in bans on beaches. I asked for the opportunity to develop an island-wide policy that we could enforce and wouldn’t cause you that consternation.”

Blangiardi has stressed that he sees the issue as a matter of equity across the island, that giving protections for some results in injury to others as the commercial operators concentrate elsewhere.

But at the town hall in Mililani on April 6, Blangiardi also noted that he had been meeting regularly with leaders in the wedding industry, who oppose restrictions on commercial uses of city beach parks.

In that venue, and responding to a comment from an area resident who said the city could earn “big revenue” by encouraging the wedding industry and charging permit fees for use of city beach sites, Blangiardi said he was eager to help entrepreneurs expand their operations.

“One thing I can tell you … is the wedding business in this post-covid environment came back very strong,” he said, adding that is “a group that I have had a lot of conversations with because of what has happened recently at beaches.”

The wedding industry wants its right to access at beaches such as Waimanalo Beach Park restored, saying the ban hurts local businesses that employ Honolulu residents. (Annabelle Le Jeune/Civil Beat/2017)

Wedding Industry Leans In

The wedding industry strongly supports Bill 19.

“We fully support finding a compromise to allow commercial activity … and still have communities able to access their peaceful, beautiful beaches,” Tessa Takekawa Gomes, president of the Oahu Wedding Association said in an email.

The debate places Laura Thielen, Blangiardi’s parks director, in the awkward position of lobbying to advance a plan her boss has proposed that would remove protections she pushed to achieve for her own constituents in Kailua and Waimanalo, when she was a state senator representing the windward side of the island.

In an interview, Thielen said she once “fought for individual communities” but now wants to “fight hard for protections island-wide.”

She said it is a simple fact that there are 250 commercial tour buses on the road on Oahu on any given day, “tour buses that will go somewhere,” and that if an effort isn’t made to address the problem now, tourists could turn to rental cars, adding further to road and park congestion.

In whatever form it takes, the bill would need to be approved by the city council and signed into law by the mayor.

The initial voting on the first reading of the bill on March 15 shows that the mayor may achieve his goal. Only two people opposed the bill as originally drafted for the mayor — Kiaaina and North Shore council member Matt Weyer.

Nathan Serota, a spokesman for the parks department, said the bill will receive considerable review in the city council’s parks committee, with the possibility of a variety of amendments and elaborations.

“We want to have a forum to have community consideration so we are closer to consensus on it,” he said.

A new city report that lists the 68 parks and their facilities will be reviewed in a parks committee hearing set for Wednesday at Honolulu Hale. The parks department has indicated it would include parks with at least 20 parking spaces and restroom facilities.

“We don’t want to direct commercial enterprises to parks without those facilities,” Serota said.

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