State upholding public policy in Kahala beach access issue
The state has requested that homeowners along Kahala Beach cut back vegetation that is interfering with public access.
Global warming notwithstanding, island shorelines persist in creeping inland as the ocean does what it has always done. To stave off erosion, some beachside residents cultivate or allow plants to grow at their property lines and beyond. Sooner or later, vegetation and waves converge, preventing people from moving laterally along public land, which law defines as the highest wash of waves at high tide during the highest surf season, "usually evidenced by the edge of vegetation or by the line of debris left by the wash of the waves."
In 2006, the Hawaii Supreme Court, reaffirming decisions made in the 1960s and 1970s, said the state, in determining shorelines certification, could not use vegetation strictly as the marker since that encouraged landowners to use plantings to extend their property further makai, contrary to objectives and policies of state law.
The problem is that shorelines in Kahala and elsewhere around the state continue to move mauka and property owners find the ocean closer to their lanai and back porches. But law sides with the public interests, which the state is defending when it sent letters to homeowners on a stretch of Kahala Beach, asking them to trim back their plants so people aren't forced into the ocean to get by.
As expected, some of the residents aren't happy and might not comply. One said the naupaka protects his property from erosion, which might be true for the time being, but eventually the sea will win out.
Longtime beach-goers can remember when the sand stretched much farther out. Dolan Eversole, a University of Hawaii coastal geologist, told the Star-Bulletin's Rob Shikina that erosion has taken away so much land that in some cases, private property already has been submerged. Eversole said the state is rightly more concerned with beach access than property lines, adding, "There is no such thing as a private beach in Hawaii."
How this matter is resolved remains to be seen. Barring dissolution of a long-standing public land trust policy, such issues will continue to spark conflicts and likely become increasingly severe as natural forces -- even without climate change -- advance.
Legislation that would have required government agencies to account for sea-level rise and erosion rates, reduce risk to coastal landowners, preserve public access to beaches and to set development farther back from shorelines failed to win approval this year. Lawmakers should reconsider the forward-looking bill in the next session.