FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kristi and Tadd Hendricks from Argyle, Texas, were married on the beach last week at Waialae Beach Park by Pastor Karen Russ.
Permits threaten wedding industry
State regulations draw the line
First of two parts
STORY SUMMARY »
The state of Hawaii is drawing the line on commercial beach weddings, which will require a permit fee of 10 cents per square foot.
The law has been on the books since 2002, but the state Department of Land and Natural Resources says it will now enforce it come Aug. 1.
"It's an existing system that's been in place, and we're asking you to comply with it," DLNR land division administrator Morris Atta told industry members at a state-sponsored Oahu meeting earlier this month. "We're also seeking your input on how we can improve it."
Wedding business owners, meanwhile, are worried that the state won't process their permits in time, saying that even one week is too slow for brides who need to know immediately whether a date is available.
Small wedding business owners, meanwhile, say they will be impacted by additional permit fees the most.
The timing couldn't have been worse for the wedding industry, which brings a significant percentage of visitors to the state, and is already taking a hit from a flailing economy.
Wedding business owners also want the state to clarify exactly where state jurisdiction of beaches begins and ends.
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It soon will cost more to get married on the beach -- if you put your feet on the sand.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources will step up its enforcement of weddings on Hawaii's beaches without permits beginning Aug. 1, with fines of up to $5,000 for the first offense.
Permits will cost 10 cents per square foot, and a minimum of $20 per beach wedding on the sand.
Already, permit applications have started pouring in, according to DLNR land division administrator Morris Atta, and should be processed in about seven days. The department is glad to see those in the industry complying, and will process the ones with upcoming dates first.
Still, those in the wedding industry are doubtful of the state's ability to process the permits efficiently -- some are afraid it will impact their business and others fear it will drive prospective brides and grooms away.
Yet others say they are still unclear exactly which beaches belong under state jurisdiction, and precisely where the boundaries begin.
To get a permit, commercial beach operators must include a county tax map key number, proof of liability insurance coverage, and a map, along with the fee.
DLNR said the law has been in place since 2002, but only recently did it realize many commercial wedding businesses have been operating without permits after a large volume of requests on Maui and Kauai earlier this year.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Members of a wedding party watched the bride and groom exchange vows last week on the beach at Waialae Beach Park. A female minister is behind the photographer.
Karen Carson Russ, owner of Affordable Weddings of Hawaii
for the last 30 years, already has applied for her state permits, but has concerns about how it's going to work.
"There are few events that are as life-changing," said Russ, who performs about three weddings a day. "This is a one-time event for people who have been dreaming about coming to Hawaii their whole lives. The last thing we want to do is make it crazy."
Russ, also president of the Hawaii State Wedding Planners Association, says the wedding industry brings repeat visitors to the state, filling hotel rooms and giving them lifetime memories.
Currently, most beach wedding coordinators have managed to share popular sites with one another respectfully, by taking turns and communicating with one another.
Unwritten rules include cleaning up afterward and not telling public beach users to get out of the way. Instead, Russ says you just move a little further down the beach.
For her own business, she typically looks for a secluded, quiet spot away from crowds, which is what the couples seek. She does not go to Lanikai or Waikiki. Most ceremonies take half an hour.
"We never see anybody," said Russ. "We're in and out, and it's just a sweet thing."
The state DLNR, however, says it has been fielding a growing number of complaints from people saying they have been told to move. Atta says data will be collected to help determine appropriate sites and what their capacities should be.
DLNR chair Laura H. Thielen said the department is guided by a hierarchy of resource management priorities, which is to protect natural and cultural resources first, and provide for public resident recreational access second.
The state allows commercial activity only if it does not impact natural and cultural resources or the public's recreational use.
Oahu's most popular beach wedding sites, as indicated by a quick scan of ads, range from Waialae Beach Park to Makapuu Point, Magic Island, Ko Olina, Kailua and Lanikai.
Wedding coordinators also go to the North Shore or Makaha, but these require additional transportation costs.
On Maui, popular sites range from Maluaka Beach to Kaanapali Beach or Kapalua Bay -- ideal for sunset weddings. On Kauai, romantic wedding sites include Princeville Beach and Shipwreck Beach.
Turnaround too slow
The most pressing concern for wedding operators across the state -- on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island -- was the efficiency of the permitting system.
One week is too late for most vendors.
A bride that calls to book a wedding date typically wants to know right away if it is available, or she'll just hang up and call someone else, vendors said. That someone else may not care to get the permit.
The system also makes spur-of-the-moment weddings more difficult as well as last-minute location changes due to rain.
The stepped-up enforcement couldn't have come at a worse time -- the industry is already taking a hit from airline cutbacks. Potential brides and grooms are booking other destinations that cost less to get to, such as Mexico.
Atta assured vendors the state would address these issues with an online permitting system similar to the state's Na Ala Hele forest trails reservation system.
"Most of the issues that have been brought up will be addressed by the online system," said Atta. "Issues about immediacy, flexibility and the possibility of refunds for canceled events due to rain."
However, the system on www.ehawaii.gov could take at least another nine months to launch.
The new enforcement means a slew of additional paperwork for both the state and wedding coordinators, but DLNR will not be hiring additional workers to process beach wedding permits, said Atta.
Atta said DOCARE (division of conservation and resources enforcement) officers will enforce the law. Given the state's limited resources, enforcement will be mostly complaints-driven.
Feeling the hit
On the face of it, there seem to be mounting fees for weddings, with fewer low-budget alternatives and more restricted access to sites.
Small wedding businesses say they will feel the impact the most.
For Rev. Toni Baran, the additional $20 is a significant cut, given that she offers a beach wedding for a low price of $95 (and $85 for the military), without any slick brochures.
Baran, as well as several other vendors, offer simple and affordable beach ceremonies for less than $100.
"That's a lot of money to a private in the military who's got a girlfriend that may or may not be pregnant," said Baran. "All this paperwork, all these fines, all these restrictions are really terrible."
But she also has an issue with the permitting system.
"The real problem is that we can't get the permits in time," she said. "It's an absolute deal-breaker."
Baran said increased regulation will hurt the wedding industry that is already feeling the pain from higher gas and airline prices, and unemployment.
She also fears the loss of the aloha spirit that brings people to Hawaii to get married.
"If we make it too difficult and unfun, people will stay on the mainland or go someplace else," she said.
Resorts are also clamping down.
The Kahala Hotel & Resort only offers wedding packages which include the use of its beachfront gazebo and reception sites, along with its own photographer. Brides that bring their own photographer must now pay an extra fee.
Ko Olina Resort is privately owned, and wedding ceremonies are not allowed at its artificial lagoons. To get to the lagoon behind the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort, you need to walk across its property which would be trespassing unless you are a guest.
However, some wedding operators advertise one public access beach spot at Ko Olina on their Web sites.
Most wedding vendors currently obtain permits from the Honolulu parks department for weddings held in city parks, without much issue.
The city offers annual as well as per-event permits, and has been able to issue them promptly, via e-mail, fax and in-person at the office.
Confusion remains over where state land begins and where it ends. The state owns most beaches in Hawaii, up to the highest wash of the wave.
"As a general rule of thumb, if you're on the sand, you're probably on state jurisdiction," said Atta.
In some instances, however, he said counties have jurisdiction over beaches down to the low water mark.
At Waialae Beach Park, a popular wedding spot, that means the city and county of Honolulu owns the grass area, and the state owns the sand by the ocean. Once a bride and groom's feet hit the sand, they're on state land.
Another popular spot, Halona Cove, better known as the "From Here to Eternity" beach made famous by the 1950s film, means parking at a city-owned lot and clambering down a hill to the state-owned beach.
Halona Cove is closed until September for renovations.
Photographers with permits from the state film office can photograph or videotape couples on a list of accessible sites, including state beaches, but still need county and state permits for some areas.
A ceremony could take place on a county park, for instance, and then the bride and groom can walk on the beach accompanied by just a photographer with proper permits.
That means three permits total could now be required -- one from the film office, the county and the state.
Susan O'Donnell of Aloha Wedding Planners, said she's still vague about the jurisdictions.
"They say up to the higher water mark," said O'Donnell. "But where does the county jurisdiction end and state begin? They can't tell you where that starts and ends. They have not given anyone a definitive answer, just a general rule of thumb."
Some wedding vendors said they'll stay on the grass, which is county owned, to avoid the hassle and confusion.
Then there are neighborhoods like Lanikai, where residents say commercial weddings just don't belong.
State beach wedding permit
Where to get one
Applications for a commercial beach wedding permit are available at the DLNR district office or online at hawaii.gov/dlnr/land/forms-1/forms.
The application for a "right-of-entry" permit must include the location and square footage of the area being requested for the event, the county tax map key number for the site, a map, proof of liability insurance (comprehensive public liability of at least $300,000 per incident and $500,000 aggregate).
Don't forget the fee, which is 10 cents per square foot per day, and a minimum of $20.
Applicants can apply for up to 10 events on multiple dates at one location but must do so at least a week prior to the event.
All representatives of a commercial wedding operator -- including a videographer, photographer and minister -- must carry a copy of the permit for inspection during the event, according to DLNR's instructions. No alcoholic beverages are permitted.
The state is working on an aerial map of most popular beach wedding sites and the tax map key numbers that go with them.
Down the line, the state may consider an annual or biannual permitting system, and hopes to launch an online reservation system similar to the one used for the state's 'Na Ala Hele forest trails.
Morris Atta, DLNR's land division administrator, said the state's goal is to gather information to eventually establish parameters for commercial weddings.
Weddings in Hawaii
Seeking love in paradise
It's no secret that Hawaii is a sought-after destination wedding site, particularly for its natural setting and beauty.
An estimated 141,770 visitors came to Hawaii to get hitched in 2007. The year prior, the numbers were 7.7 percent higher.
The state doesn't track wedding-related visitor expenditures, but the volume no doubt makes a significant impact.
Wedding expenditures range from hotel rooms to transportation, apparel, catering, floral purchases, photography, beauty services, jewelry, entertainment and gifts.
More than 60 percent of total marriage licenses through the first five months of this year and in 2007 were filed by non-residents, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health.
Visitors come from all over the world to get married in Hawaii, and often return for their anniversaries, say wedding coordinators.
The wedding industry should be a respected member of the state's economic fabric, said Rev. Fay Hovey of Aloha Maui Weddings, not only for promoting Hawaii but for the tourism it brings.
"We do our business honorably and ethically, and we provide meaningful customer service to people from all over the world," said Hovey. "The wedding industry provides, I think, a prime point of aloha."
By the numbers
|Pct. of non-resident marriages*
|Visitors who came to Hawaii to get married:
Source: Department of Health Vital Statistics, DBEDT visitor statistics
Residents want Lanikai Beach restricted.