Impacts Of Land Use In Hawaii

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Hawaii has changed dramatically in the last half century. After the advent of trans-Pacific air travel, the number of residents and visitors skyrocketed. The population has more than doubled since Hawaii became a state in 1959, with some 1.3 million people now calling Hawaii home. In recent years approximately 7 million visitors annually have enjoyed Hawaii’s beauty. While Hawaii’s landmass has remained essentially static over that time, the human demands on it have grown and changed, impacting the land and its flora and fauna in numerous ways.

The Latest

Two major developments on Oahu are facing stiff opposition from environmental groups.

In July 2011, the Sierra Club scored a significant victory against Castle & Cooke’s plans to develop a planned community of 5,000 homes between Waipio and Mililani. A Circuit Court judge ruled that the Koa Ridge project’s approval in October by the Land Use Commission was invalid.

Castle & Cooke is appealing the court’s jurisdiction over the case. If the Sierra Club prevails, then Castle & Cooke would have to wait a year before filing a new application with the Land Use Commission.

A 12,000-home, master-planned community on farmland in Kapolei is also facing opposition from the Sierra Club and Friends of Makakilo, who are intervenors in the case before the Land Use Commission. D.R. Horton, the developer for the community called Hoopili, has had to go before the commission twice to try to get land re-classified from agricultural to urban use. In 2009, in a 5-3 vote, the commission denied its application based on a lack of phasing information detailing the timeline of development.

The Land Use Commission evaluates requests by considering them against the [Hawaii State Plan] and weighing preservation against economic growth.


The state has gone to great lengths to protect its land and natural resources for future generations, but it has also sought a balance between conservation and economic development. Policies like the state land use law and county zoning ordinances have left an indelible mark. Their impact on Hawaii and the islands’ future has sometimes been positive — increasing energy and food sustainability — and sometimes negative, damaging native and endangered plants and animals. Often, these impacts, direct and indirect, are not anticipated when land use decisions are made.

The land uses that have wrought the greatest impacts are directly tied to population growth. Human expansion into previously undeveloped areas and technological advancements that make our lives easier put new pressures on the ecosystem. Introduction of alien plants and animals has decimated Hawaii’s native flora and fauna over the past two centuries.

Air Pollution

While Hawaii’s air is considered to be among the cleanest in the nation, air quality is still a problem for the state, especially in Honolulu. Like many places on Earth, Hawaii suffers from the release of chemicals or particulate matter into the air, which can harm humans and other living things. The Hawaii Clean Air Branch of the Hawaii Department of Health monitors air quality, relying on regulation like the U.S. Clean Air ActSection 342B of the Hawaii Revised Statutes and Sections 11-59 and 11-60 of the Hawaii Administrative Rules.

Air pollution is primarily caused by the refining and burning of fossil fuels like oil for electricity, emissions from vehicles, pesticides and fertilizers. Pollutants also spout from Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island, but the phenomenon commonly referred to as “vog” is not man-made and cannot be traced back to human land use decisions. However, vog can compound other factors that decrease air quality, creating medical problems for humans and hurting other plants and animals.

Water Pollution

Hawaii’s “mauka-to-makai” (mountains-to-sea) mentality is a manifestation of the understanding that activities on land impact life in the ocean. Pollutants, waste and litter enter the water system up in the mountains, work their way down streams and rivers before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Some pollutants permeate the soil and contaminate ground water, eventually reaching the ocean.

Water quality impacts human and other life in a number of ways. Drinking water is a basic building block of life while non-potable water for crop irrigation plays a major role in daily life in Hawaii. While the islands generally see a healthy amount of rain, water rights and access to water are contentious issues, and keeping the water supply free of contaminants is critical. Also, pollutants that reach the ocean can potentially damage the coral reefs and infect the fish upon which Hawaiians have relied for centuries.

Wastewater and stormwater are also part of the clean water equation. The Hawaii Clean Water Branch of the state’s health department is the primary local agency to monitor water quality, relying on Section 11-55 of the Hawaii Administrative Rules. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also administers the U.S. Clean Water Act.


For countless generations, Native Hawaiians buried their ancestors in the sand. They believe the bones, known as iwi, have their ancestors’ life force, or mana, in them, so the graves were unmarked. Their locations were passed down orally from generation to generation to preserve the secret. As Western builders began to dig near the shoreline, Hawaiian bones were inevitably found in many locations.

The Historic Preservation Division of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources runs burial councils for the islands. These volunteer boards are tasked with deciding whether discovered bones should be preserved in place or disinterred and re-interred in a respectful manner consistent with Hawaiian traditions. Issues surrounding burials and arguments over burial treatment plans have stopped numerous proposed developments. Burial issues have also caused strife between developers, including the state and county governments, and Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

Striking a balance between new development and historical reverence is also required in other situations. The Hawaii Historical Society was organized in the late 19th Century to catalog and preserve historical materials.

Noise Pollution

Because unwanted noise has no smell, texture or taste, the term “noise pollution” is not as common as “air pollution” or “water pollution.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has noted that loud, unwanted sounds can interfere with sleep, disrupt conversation and diminish one’s quality of life. The agency adds that problems related to noise include “stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity.”

The Hawaii Department of Health, through Section 11-46 of the Hawaii Administrative Rules, has created standards for maximum permissible sound levels. The section sets different limits, depending on time of day and zoning designation, with more industrial areas allowed to have louder noises.

Light Pollution

Hawaii, especially outside of Honolulu, is a dark place at night, but artificial lights have changed the landscape after the sun goes down. Man-made light pollution has had an especially dramatic impact on endangered seabirds that use light from the moon and stars to find their nests and are disoriented by artificial lighting.

Species like the Newell’s Shearwater have had a particularly hard time on the once-dark North Shore of Kauai, where environmentalists have sued a hotel for failing to adequately mitigate the light pollution that has led to bird deaths.

Solid Waste/Odors

As the population has grown and as more goods have been shipped to Hawaii, local leaders struggled with where to put the refuse. Some solid waste is burned for energy, some is recycled and used again, and some is sent to landfills to decompose. Decisions on where to house tons upon tons of waste must take into account the impacts on surrounding communities of wind-borne odors and wind-blown trash.

Some rules governing garbage are laid out in Section11-58 of the Hawaii Administrative Rules, which govern the Hawaii Department of Health’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Branch.


Compared to other major U.S. cities, Honolulu’s “travel time tax” ranks second to Los Angeles, even though Honolulu’s level of congestion only ranks 38th. The 2009 National Traffic Scorecard conducted by Inrix, a traffic services company based in Kirkland, Wash., found those who drive on the Lunalilo (H-1) freeway during rush hour spend an extra 47 percent longer than they would during a non-peak period.

Up to 75 percent of Oahu commuters use H-1 during peak periods, causing bottlenecks in several areas. At the Middle Street merge point, for example, traffic can slow to 8 mph. During morning rush-hour, the roughly 20-mile drive from Kapolei to downtown Honolulu lasts about 89 minutes — a trip that takes 32 minutes in the opposite direction.

The Texas Transportation Institute‘s Urban Mobility Report notes that more than 10 million person-hours of traffic delays cost Hawaii $199 million in 2007. Though the number of miles driven on freeways by Hawaii motorists each day rose from 5.8 million in 2002 to 6.3 million in 2007, no freeway lanes were added during that time, the report shows.

Both Honolulu and the state have taken measures to alleviate congestion, including operation of high occupancy vehicle lanes, the movable H-1 zipper lane and using contraflow lanes during designated periods. These strategies have improved traffic flow in some areas, but government leaders have struggled since the 1960s to reach consensus on a rapid transit system that would provide an alternative for commuters and remove enough cars from the road to relieve rush hour congestion.

Any significant solution requires cooperation at every level of government. Jurisdiction over city roads falls under Honolulu’s Department of Transportation Services, while the state Department of Transportation oversees Oahu’s highways, harbors and airports. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration Hawaii Division administers approximately $168 million in federal aid annually to help the state and counties — urban Honolulu in particular — deal with congestion, promote safety and protect the environment from negative impacts from traffic.

Ecosystem Encroachment

The simple presence of humans in previously undeveloped areas has put pressure on Hawaii’s ecosystem. The introduction of alien plants and animals has decimated Hawaii’s native plants and creatures. Dozens of species have become extinct, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‘s list of threatened and endangered species in the Pacific Islands is lengthy, and includes mammals, reptiles, plants and many birds.

Among them is the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, a marine mammal that can become entangled in fishing gear and is threatened by exposure to disease, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Mother seals with their pups also suffer harassment. Seals who use coastlines for breeding and basking in the sun after eating fish have not developed evasive skills on land and are often harassed. In the 19th Century, seals were killed for their oil and pelts while fisherman have at times killed seals for taking their catch. In April 2010, Hawaii passed a state law to supplement the Federal Endangered Species Act making it a felony to deliberately harm a monk seal. Green Sea Turtles, called “honu” in Hawaiian, are another prominent threatened species.

The presence of monk seals and sea turtles in and around Turtle Bay were deciding factors in the Hawaii Supreme Court’s decision to ask developers to revise their environmental impact statement.


Hawaii suffers from both a lack of available housing as well as a lack of affordable housing. The state’s great distance from the mainland and the limited amount of land help contribute to a high cost of living. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Hawaii’s home ownership rate of 59.1 percent was ranked 48th in the country in 2008, ahead of just California and New York and nearly 10 points below the national average.

The high cost of living, combined with myriad other factors has lead to homelessness, particularly in Honolulu. The Hawaii Public Housing Authority and Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation work on housing issues statewide, coordinating with private landowners and developers to provide affordable housing options to the public.


For decades, much of Hawaii’s best farmland was used for exported cash crops like sugar and pineapple, grown on plantations with immigrant workers. After the world commodities market made it financially unfeasible to grow those crops in the United States, Hawaii’s lush climate, water supply and sunshine were used for a more diversified agricultural system focused on food production for consumption in the state. A market for biofuels to be burned for energy has emerged in recent years and is expected to expand in the not-too-distant future.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture promotes Hawaii’s agriculture and aquaculture industries, and has overseen the transition from pineapple and sugar plantations to diversified crops like vegetables and fruits, a critical period in the transformation of the state’s economy and environment.

The department inspects for invasive species in imported plants and animals, provides financial support to farmers in the form of loans, assures the quality of produce, and administers agricultural resources like irrigation systems.


Hawaii imports petroleum for about 90 percent of its energy needs, making it among the most oil-dependent states in the country. Because of this, Hawaii residents pay more for their electricity and fuel than almost all other Americans. Of all the energy consumed in the state, 40 percent of it is for transportation.

The dependence on fossil fuels also opens the state to a potentially disastrous oil spill. The U.S. Coast GuardHawaii Department of Health and other county, state and federal agencies have prepared for this, collaborating on the Hawaii Area Contingency Plan. The plan outlines the response plans to deal with everything from a small oil spill measuring just gallons to a worst case scenario of a million-barrel oil tanker losing its product near Hawaii’s shores. Such a leak would have a dramatic effect on human health, tourism, rare plants and animals.

The Clean Islands Council, an oil response consortium of the state’s largest oil users, maintains the Hawaii Oil Spill Center, a home base for training, drills and meetings.

The state’s energy consumption could soon change. The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy and the State of Hawaii formed in 2008, has as its goal the local, clean production of 70 percent of the state’s energy needs by 2030.

Renewable energy technologies that could become more prominent in Hawaii include solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, ocean wave and ocean thermal energy. By focusing on efficiency and conservation, state officials hope to reduce the Hawaii’s overall energy demands.

Key Players

Different land use impacts affect different regions of Hawaii and different segments of the population. Some advocacy groups have sprung up to address general environmental concerns, while others have been created to raise awareness or lobby government agencies about one particular impact.


Advocacy Groups


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