Residents of Kauai’s north shore are overwhelmingly opposed to a plan to build a cell tower on a residential lot in Haena.

For John Sargent, part of the lure of owning a home in the farthest reaches of Kauai’s north shore is the nonexistent cell phone signal.


Visitors who rent vacation homes in the area often complain about the lack of connectivity, but Sargent and his like-minded neighbors relish the sense of peace and lack of disruption it affords.

“I don’t care if I have reception,” said Sargent, who owns a bike shop in nearby Hanalei. “In fact, I don’t actually want it.”

But Sargent, who purchased his house 38 years ago in rural Haena, has a 125-foot problem: AT&T wants to build a cell phone tower on a vacant residential lot less than 50 feet from his bedroom window. 

“It’s completely overwhelming,” said Sargent, who lives with his wife, daughter and grandson. “I feel like this quiet life we have is about to be taken over.”

The plan to construct the tower aims to strengthen communications capabilities for emergency responders, according to AT&T spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez. In a community prone to being cut off by landslides and flood waters from the rest of the island, better cell service for public safety workers would seem to be a clear benefit.

A controversial plan to build a cell phone tower on a residential lot in Haena on Kauai’s North Shore would transform an overgrown, vacant residential lot into an AT&T telecommunications facility. On the left is John Sargent’s house. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

But most residents say they don’t want it. 

More than 2,600 people signed an online petition protesting the proposed tower, called a monopine because it would be designed to look like an artificial pine tree.

Many cite health concerns about exposure to radio frequency waves emitted from cell phone towers. Others take issue with the cell tower’s adverse effect on property values, safety concerns if a storm were to topple the tower and fears about the modernization of a simple way of life.

AT&T knows there are questions and concerns about the project and looks forward to engaging with the community, Rodriguez said in an email.

Kauai’s north shore community has a long history of fending off what it considers threats to the area’s pristine environment or its endangered rural lifestyle. Residents have blocked hotels from being built on Hanalei Bay. They’ve halted repeated efforts to modernize the historic, one-way Hanalei Bridge. They drove a bizarre Colorado-based cult out of town and off the island.

In 2014, they squashed an earlier proposal by AT&T to construct a cell tower in Haena on a hill in a pasture of cattle, horses and donkeys owned by the Robinson family and located behind the Sargent home. Residents rallied against it for many reasons, not least the disruption it posed to the area’s unbroken natural views of sea, pasture and waterfall-drenched mountain peaks.

The newly proposed location is worse, some residents say, because it’s a residential lot in the middle of a neighborhood. The lot, which is overgrown with vines and weeds, has off-island owners who have apparently worked out a lease agreement with AT&T.

The site is along the historic Route 560, a 10-mile scenic road that is a popular tourist destination. The narrow artery curves along beaches, protected reefs, rivers, streams, wet and dry caves, lush greenery, 11 one-way bridges and fluted mountains. There are no traffic lights or big resorts.

Kee Beach at Haena State Park is one of the state’s premier visitor destinations. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2019)

Jonny Wichman, president of the Hanalei-to-Haena Community Association, said the area’s abundant natural beauty is not a mere novelty but a feature of immense cultural, historic and economic value.

Haena’s iconic vistas have made it home to one of the most-visited state parks in Hawaii. The lone road that winds through this rural region is on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation partly earned by the region’s aesthetics.

“People that live out here, they know they’re living in a remote place,” Wichman said. “They know they live beyond 11 one-way bridges and they know floods happen, they know they could get cut off from the rest of the island and it’s honestly part of the charm out here. I think a cell tower in the middle of it would be a detriment to that charm.”

The project is in the early stages of the permitting process. AT&T is working on completing a cultural impact assessment and an archaeological inventory survey required by the Kauai Historic Preservation Review Commission

Kauai County spokesperson Kim Tamaoka said in an email that the county did not initiate or request the cell tower project, which would eventually need approval from the Planning Commission and a building permit prior to construction.

Jonny Wichman, a community organizer from Haena, stands on the overgrown, vacant lot where AT&T plans to build a controversial cell tower. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

At the Hanalei-to-Haena Community Association’s April open house — the group’s first public meeting since the coronavirus pandemic started — residents identified the cell tower as their top priority issue, above noise from sightseeing helicopters, bottlenecks of tourist traffic and cars parked illegally on road shoulders.

Board members voted to facilitate a community meeting, planned for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at YMCA Camp Naue, to discuss the planned cell tower and telecommunications facility. Representatives from AT&T and Mayor Derek Kawakami’s office have been invited to attend and speak at the meeting.

Another speaker on the agenda is Terri Tico, a lawyer who has lived near the proposed project site since 1990. 

Tico said she opposes a cell tower anywhere in Haena. The area’s lack of connectivity is something that encourages residents and tourists alike to tune into the area’s awesome nature — turtles feeding on limu, ancient fields of loi kalo — without distraction from the barrage of stimuli on a smartphone, she said.

“This is a traditional community,” Tico said. “A number of Hawaiian families who go back 10 generations live out here. The ocean is their refrigerator, the coral is their garden and they take care of it. They’re very aligned with the land and the sea and they want to protect it. They don’t necessarily want it modernized. So to put in a tower that is 100 feet higher than any other building out here is just absurd.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author