Maui Residents Fight To Save Kihei’s Last Wetlands

County officials continue to approve new building permits close to shore despite rising seas.

(Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

As the cars whiz by on Kihei’s main drag, Trinette Furtado stops the volunteers in front of a drainage ditch along the sidewalk.

Wearing a shirt that reads “Ola i ka wai,” or water is life, the cultural adviser for Maui’s Save the Wetlands Hui points to each native plant sprouting from the damp soil along the bank, then shifts her focus to the murky water pooling in the culvert. Flashes of orange dart under the surface — a school of golden tilapia.

Many Maui residents aren’t aware of the fish swimming next to South Kihei Road. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

Not long ago, when Furtado and her colleague were taking school children on a field trip here, they ran into county crews digging up a suspected broken water line. In reality, fresh water had bubbled through the ground near the sidewalk, creating the new habitat.

Furtado had thought there wouldn’t be a utility line, because this section of South Kihei Road isn’t just a road. It’s actually a bridge, cutting through one of the last remaining wetlands in Kihei.

“You may not have noticed it,” Furtado said. “But we’re killing it.”

The bridge forming South Kihei Road that cuts through the Laʻie wetland. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

The Laʻie wetland is an increasingly rare oasis in Kihei, one that’s managed to survive as vacation rentals, roads, strip malls, warehouses and a medispa have been built on and around it.

In the last 60 years, more than 100 acres of Kihei’s wetlands have been gobbled up, which exploded from a tiny rural town to one of Hawaii’s busiest tourist destinations over the course of a single lifetime.

Today, a perfect storm of poor planning, climate change, loss of wetlands and upland erosion from invasive deer has turned Kihei into ground zero for the worst of Maui’s “mud floods.”

Within the last year alone, at least three violent deluges sent millions of gallons of thick brown water flooding into roadways, parking garages, businesses and homes in Kihei.

When the chocolate-colored ooze reaches the ocean, it smothers coral reefs. And in the ultimate tragedy, Maui County firefighter Tre’ Evans-Dumaran died at age 24 in February, after he was sucked into a storm drain while responding to flooding.

But even as government officials and residents have become increasingly aware of the consequences that arise when nature’s flood basins are paved over, the threats to Kihei’s rare wildlands continue.

(April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023) April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023

Near the most coastal swath of the Laʻie wetland, where the stream meets the sea, one of the last undeveloped parcels has been greenlit for development. In recent weeks, the county issued a building permit for “The Beach House At Kapu” — a new, two-story home with a pool built on a property less than 200 feet away from the beach.

Some residents who care for the Laʻie wetlands, including Furtado, are pushing back. Last week, Malama Laʻie Ohana, along with Maui Tomorrow, filed a challenge against county officials’ decision to exempt the development from more stringent shoreline planning rules after concluding it posed no “significant environmental impacts.”

A Maui County map shows projected sea level rise in the area around the Laʻie wetland. The blue icon is where the new beach house is proposed. (Screenshot/Maui County/2023) Screenshot/Maui County/2023

The legal filing argues that the home will threaten the environment around it by paving over one of the last slivers of undeveloped land that absorbs runoff before it reaches the sea.

The filing also says the approval contradicts a new law enacted in October that orders Maui County to protect and restore the wetlands, including by creating protective buffers around 50 to 200 feet of one.

The county is still working with a consultant to map exactly where those areas are. The hope is that the map will be finished by the end of the year, which the county will then use to guide where it purchases privately-owned wetlands that protect the rest of the community from flooding.

“You always have to be cognizant of property rights,” said Maui County Planning Director Kathleen Aoki. “And if decisions are made that the policy is that you don’t want development in certain areas, there has to be compensation for that.”

Dirty water can be contaminated with pesticides, fecal matter, dead animals or other toxins. It also smothers coral reefs. (Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui) Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui

But it’s not only the properties near or within wetlands that some residents say should be protected for generations to come.

A growing number of Maui residents are recognizing that property owners for decades were allowed to build too close to the shoreline. Now, sea level rise presents a hard choice: be doomed to flood in the future, or move their homes and businesses out of the way.

This spring, Maui became the first county in Hawaii to bar new coastal development in areas expected to be swamped when sea levels rise 3 feet — something that could happen as soon as 2060. State-adopted maps show that even the section of South Kihei Road that leads to the proposed home on Kapu Place will likely be underwater in the decades to come.

The sketches for the home proposed on Kapu Place. (Screenshot/Maui County/2023) 

“How could that happen again?” Kelly King, a 40-year Kihei resident and former County Council member, said of the home’s approval.

King spent her last year in office focusing on tackling climate change and creating the law to protect Maui’s disappearing wetlands.

From her perspective, planning for a new luxury home along the shoreline is “business as usual” in a community where the lack of careful planning has long threatened fragile natural ecosystems — and is now posing a danger to people who live alongside them.

“Kihei was the wild wild west,” said King. “I think that’s what they’re having a hard time with right now: Why can’t we do that again? Why can’t we continue to make money off of Kihei?”

‘Why Would Anybody Want To Live Down There?’

Charlene Schulenburg grew up in a little condo at the Kihei Sands, one of the few that existed there in the 1970s. From her parents’ apartment, she listened to the chatter of the birds as they flew to and from Kealia Pond, a sprawling marsh now protected as a national wildlife refuge.

The Laʻie wetland provides precious habitat for a range of insects, fish and birds. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

When Schulenburg was a girl, Kihei was home to an estimated 200 acres of wetlands and around 1,600 residents. There was only one hotel. Back then, Schulenburg said, Maui residents who lived elsewhere thought of Kihei as a hot and windy place, ridden with bogs and mudflats. The wetlands were seen as wastelands, not as critical flood control mechanisms or precious habitat for native flora and fauna.

“Why would anybody want to live down there?” Schulenburg recalled thinking at the time.

Yet at the same time, the undeveloped coastline was home to some of Maui’s most beautiful beaches.

So as pineapple and sugar plantation jobs dried up, and Maui leaders pivoted to tourism to save the economy, a federally funded plan in the early 1970s laid the groundwork for development in South Maui. Among the suggestions: the construction of an “entirely new resort town” in Wailea, aimed at “capitalizing on the magnificent white sand beaches.”

But the plan didn’t fully recognize the importance of wetlands and streams, which often flowed only during rainy months. Meanwhile, all condos, resorts and neighborhoods fed into the two-lane South Kihei Road, which decades later would be swamped by both bumper-to-bumper traffic and flooding.

An aerial image of the Laʻie wetlands from 1949. (Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui) Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui

Like so many others who grew up on Maui, Schulenburg moved away for college. By the time she returned around 2010, her hometown had exploded into a community of 20,000 residents, with thousands of vacation rentals and hotel rooms.

She and her husband bought a home built around 2000, wedged between South Kihei Road, a white-sand beach and the place where the stream meets the sea, or muliwai, that runs from the Laʻie wetland.

In being so close to the muliwai, she began to learn about all the insects, fish and birds that flocked to the water. She studied how the stream helps filter the flooding, protecting the clear ocean water that coral reefs need to survive.

“This is my kuleana,” Schulenburg said.

Living next the wetland made her feel as if she reunited with an old friend. But no matter how much time she spent trying to restore the ecosystem in her backyard, decades worth of planning shortfalls and the sudden increase of torrential storms had thrown her hometown into an existential crisis.

Since the start of 2022 alone, she has been trapped on her property on four separate occasions by floods on South Kihei Road.

The Laʻie wetland help absorb and control the floodwaters that flows from high up the slopes of Haleakala, from Keokea. (Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui) Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui

‘The Beach House At Kapu’

On the other side of the muliwai from Schulenburg’s property, the “Beach House At Kapu” is slated to be the first new home built on that stretch of shoreline in years. Down the block, some of the oldest homes date back to the 1940s, long before builders and county officials ever heard of climate change or sea level rise.

The current zoning at 83 Kapu Place allows for apartments. More than a decade ago, a duplex was proposed there, but the current owner scaled down plans to a 4,190-square-foot house with an estimated construction cost of $1 million, according to county documents.

Building plans say the pool is designed above the floodplain that crosses over a sliver of the property. Flood vents are planned around the garage. In an email, Micheline De Berardine, who owns the property through a trust based in Pennsylvania, said she was unavailable for an interview.

(April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2023) 

Some Maui residents worry about how close the construction site is to the muliwai. Others worry about how the parcel is formed of sand, a common final resting place for ancestral Native Hawaiian burials. A survey also found groundwater just 2.6 feet below the surface. Those are among the reasons why today, members of Malama Laʻie Ohana are appealing the Planning Department’s exemption that paved the way for the home’s approval.

Previous studies have found water just 2.6 feet feet under the surface of the ground at 83 Kapu Place. (Screenshot/Malama Laʻie Ohana legal filing/2023) Screenshot/Malama Laie legal filing/2023

Kathleen Aoki assumed her role as planning director in January and inherited the project from her predecessors, who had previously ruled it would pose no significant environmental threat. Because neighbors had concerns about the property, she said planning staff held off on allowing building permits and went “above and beyond” to ask for more information about the property, including a thorough report of the soil. Planners then decided there wasn’t enough evidence to trigger more review beyond that, which could’ve included vetting by Maui’s Planning Commission and a public hearing.

Then the county’s Department of Public Works, a separate agency that handles building permits, gave the go-ahead to start building in April.

“It’s not rubber-stamped, and it’s an onerous process for good reason,” Aoki said. “But by the same token, if there’s no significant or cumulative environmental impacts, then developments are approved.”

In the future, as governments try to deter development on fragile areas like wetlands or coastlines, Aoki said the surest path forward will be buying the properties from their owners. It’s illegal for the government to stop someone from building on their property if they already have zoning or permits to do so; that’s considered a “taking,” she said.

Parts of South Kihei Road have been closed multiple times in recent years because of flooding. (Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui) Courtesy of Save The Wetlands Hui

And that’s both a policy — and financial — question that Maui County and state leaders will be forced to answer in the decades to come. The effort to save Kihei’s last wetlands is just a small part of it; across Hawaii, no one knows who will be forced to foot the bill to move billions of dollars of coastal properties out of the way of rising seas.

But in Kihei, it’s going to take more than restoring the wetlands to stop the flooding, Aoki said. Mayor Richard Bissen is already working with landowners up the slopes of Haleakala to crack down on the invasive deer that have overgrazed pastures and accelerated erosion. Engineers are looking at creating more basins to hold runoff and finding ways to fix Kihei’s poorly planned drainage systems, in hopes of stopping residents from being trapped in their homes or unable to open their businesses when floodwaters surround them.

“We’re constantly under the threat of, when is it going to happen next?” Aoki said. “It’s not a good position to be in, but it’s not something that’s going to get solved overnight.”

‘It’s Alive For You’

Robin Knox shows a volunteer how to identify which plants to pull to make way for the natives. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

It hadn’t rained in days, and on that Saturday in late May, the whole place was dry. But Robin Knox of the Save the Wetlands Hui and many of the volunteers still donned rubber boots to spend the morning pulling invasive weeds to give more space for the native plants to take root in the Laʻie wetland, mauka of South Kihei Road.

Although the untrained eye might only look for water, Knox, who works as the hui’s environmental scientist, knows that so many other signs can be used to identify a wetland.

Even roughly a thousand feet away from the shoreline, salt from the ocean’s tides pushes through the ground’s surface in the Laʻie wetland. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

There’s the shimmer of salt crystals on the soil, and the deep cracks that run through the dirt — a signal that water pooled there not long ago. But Knox also knows that much of the wetlands’ magic happens below the ground, out of sight. Just 2 feet under the soil’s surface in some areas of Kihei, the ocean’s tides meet the wetlands’ fresh water, which helps prevent the salt from creeping in to the supply underground.

“That’s why the wetlands are so important to protect our freshwater,” Knox said.

Trinette Furtado and other volunteers focus on clearing invasive plants so the native ones can take root. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

For years, Knox was among a handful of South Maui residents, like Schulenburg, who would show up to each government meeting that might affect the wetlands in their backyards. After running into each other everywhere, they formed the Save the Wetlands Hui — the organization that last year helped push for the wetlands protection law. They’ve already had another win this year: The county is putting $5 million into a fund to buy and save portions of Kihei’s remaining wetlands that will help protect the surrounding community from flooding.

The hui focuses on working with private property owners to restore wetlands that might otherwise be slated for development. The Laʻie wetland, for example, is split between several different owners, some of whom the hui has convinced to leave in place.

The native plants have returned to areas in the Laʻie wetland, even without being planted. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023) Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023

Twice a month, Knox, together with the hui’s cultural adviser, Trinette Furtado, leads workdays there, giving the public a chance to learn about the birds and plants that call the section of undeveloped land home. Knox teaches them how the water flows under the ground, and Furtado explains how Native Hawaiians have long used the wetlands’ plants as medicine.

Not long ago, the hui found a set of two cowry shells in the brush there. Furtado thinks must have washed up decades ago. She prayed over them, and then polished them up with her daughter, who now uses them for hula.

“Now that you know it’s here, it’s alive for you,” Furtado said. “You’re not going to ignore it.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants 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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