A lengthy hearing Monday left County Council members with unanswered questions about using a new financing tool to replenish the beach.

A group of West Maui condo owners is asking the county for permission to raise their property taxes as a way to funnel up to $40 million into rebuilding the beach in front of their buildings. 

Maui County locator map

Despite the threat that sea level rise poses to Hawaii’s coastal communities, there isn’t a comprehensive state or county policy that guides what to do when the ocean begins to eat up coastal property.

Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, so the Kahana condo owners are proposing their own solution: tapping a relatively new county financing tool to haul in offshore sand to the beach and build rock walls in the water to hopefully hold it in place for years to come. 

A consultant for the Kahana Bay Steering Committee gave a presentation to the Maui County Council on Monday. (Screenshot/Kahana Bay Steering Committee/2023)

The condo owners’ consultant presented the plan Monday to the Maui County Council, which has the power to create a special tax program to pay for the so-called Community Facilities District. The tool allows a group of property owners to agree to pay higher property taxes for a certain period of time in exchange for the county using that money to sell government-issued bonds to fund major construction. 

The condo owners hope the funding mechanism might be the ticket to saving their condos without having to come up with millions of dollars in cash right away. But county officials spent much of Monday afternoon questioning the legal risks that the county might take on if it opts to protect privately owned condominiums that are largely used as vacation rentals by building and becoming the owner of structures out in the ocean aimed at slowing down coastal erosion.

Others worried that digging up all that sand would hurt marine life like coral and octopus, while some wondered if the project would even stand up to West Maui’s swells. 

“How much time would we buy with $40 million?” Council Chair Alice Lee asked.

“It is to be determined, honestly,” the condo owners’ consultant Michael Foley replied, adding if sea levels rise more rapidly than expect, that could shorten the project’s life or warrant more maintenance.

Kahana used to be home to a wide stretch of white-sand beach. (Screenshot/Kahana Bay Steering Committee/2023)

Decades ago, the Kahana condominiums, like so many other hotels and coastal estates, were simply built too close to the shoreline. The structures and their seawalls sped up erosion, and now that seas are rising even faster because of climate change, coastal properties across West Maui are in the throes of an existential crisis. 

A couple of miles away in Kaanapali, a resort group had for years planned to partner with the state to spend millions of dollars hauling in sand from offshore to widen its white-sand beach. But the resorts are now having to come up with a new plan after the Board of Land and Natural Resources in March shot it down amid concerns from residents about using public dollars to protect private property. In the years to come, state officials will also be charged with vetting the Kahana condo owners’ plan if it moves forward.

But first, the Kahana condo owners are trying to convince county officials to help them finance the project. During Monday’s council meeting, Foley detailed how, if nothing is done, the county could end up losing about $11 million in tax revenue each year if the 961 condominiums worth roughly $600 million in total are lost. Then there are the dangers to people and the environment if buildings begin to collapse into the sea. 

Moving the condos away from the shoreline, however, could take two decades and cost more than a half-billion dollars, Foley said.

So the property owners are proposing a fix they hope could last decades: hauling in up to 100,000 cubic yards of sand to create a continuous, three-quarter-mile-long stretch of beach in front of the condominiums, some of which have no beach at all. Crews would also restore the natural features on the beach by growing native plants, while at the same time constructing manmade rock barriers in the ocean to stop sand from getting sucked away again. 

A map of the proposed project. (Screenshot/Kahana Bay Steering Committee/2023)

If the condo owners only hauled in sand without building the barriers in the ocean, they might have to repeat the process every nine years, Foley said. 

“We don’t want to come back here a decade from now and still be in the same situation,” he said.

About a dozen condo owners, including those who don’t live on Maui full time, spent Monday afternoon urging the council to approve the plan and act now to save their condos.

Sarah Schmerling, who said she just moved to Maui and serves as the president of her Kahana condo complex, told council members that she worried about the threats to marine creatures that would arise if the condos were allowed to fall into the ocean.

She also wondered: “Where are we going to live?” 

But when asked how many owners in the complex lived full time in the building, she said she didn’t know. 

Royal Kahana Maui
A view from the roof of Royal Kahana Maui condo complex. (Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022)

Despite asking several property owners and the consultant, council members never got an answer about how many of the units across the nine Kahana condos were used as vacation rentals as opposed to homes for full-time residents. Council members also questioned what might happen if the condos themselves, some of which are decades old and in desperate need of repair, were condemned before their owners had paid off all of the taxes owed to the county.

“If the property no longer exists before the bond is completely paid off, who is left holding the bag?” Council member Keani Rawlins-Fernandez asked.

“That’s a fair question,” Foley replied. “I do not have the answer today.”

The Maui County Council is scheduled to continue discussing the project on June 19. Even if the condo owners get the county’s approval for the funding, they will still have to go through a number of other permitting processes with other government agencies, which could take several years.

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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