Sunday, January 13, 2002

This beachfront property along Kalaheo Avenue in Kailua, shown here earlier this month, is among those that might have foliage planted too close to the public beach line.

Lawmakers try
to sharpen beachfront
property lines

2 lawmakers propose bills to
stop owners from trying to
claim expanded beach land

By Diana Leone

For people who own beachfront property, the dividing line between public and private land has not always been clear.

The ocean can erode away their property. The beach can also grow. Some property owners have also taken matters into their own hands and expanded their lawns and vegetation onto public beaches.

But two Windward Oahu lawmakers say it's time to draw the line in the sand.

State Sen. Fred Hemmings and Rep. Cynthia Thielen, both Kailua Republicans, are proposing that if the beach grows a little -- a process called accretion -- that it remain state conservation land, accessible to the public.

Under Thielen's and Hemmings' bills, the only exception would be if a landowner had lost land to erosion in years past and the beach grew back.

"The beaches are by far and away our most used parks" and the public, not private landowners, should reap the benefits of any beach growth, Hemmings said.

Private owners can apply for ownership of so-called accreted land if they can prove that the changed shoreline has been stable for 20 years.

The process does not require the adjacent landowner to pay the state for the new land and offers no public notice that the application has been made.

"We have no intention of taking private property," Thielen said. "This merely is to say if that the land builds up and an owner thinks, 'I'd like to acquire that land,' it would no longer be possible to do this."

Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Gilbert Coloma-Agaran, who is reviewing the legislation, said, "We're always interested in protecting public assets."

State land surveyor Randall Hashimoto estimated his office has considered about 10 accretion cases in the past seven years.

"There is major erosion compared to accretion in this state," Hashimoto said. Losing land to the sea is "the risk you run when you live along the coastal area."

But, Hemmings said, "Even one's too many, especially when you have such a precious resource like Kailua Beach and people are out watering the beach" to get vegetation to grow seaward, which could help them expand their land holding. "It's wrong and we hope to put a stop to it."

Kailua resident Karen Simmons said she learned that neighbors on Kailua Beach had applied for an accretion only when she saw a surveyor taking measurements last summer and asked about it.

Hashimoto reviewed that application and told the landowners that their land would not qualify for accretion because the shoreline hadn't been stable for the required 20 years.

"If it stays where it is, they could come back in 2020 and try again," he said.

The landowners, who are part-time residents, refused comment.

For Simmons, the incident got her thinking about how some Kailua Beach residents water the plants growing on the state land nearest their property.

"There are numerous homes between my house and Kailua Beach Park (a quarter-mile away) that are aggressively doing this," she said.

Most appear to be watering existing plants, but at least one lot has made recent plantings that appear to go past the property line.

State law defines the certified shoreline as being the highest wash of the waves over the course of an entire year. Thus the beach itself, which is state conservation land and open to the public, extends as far mauka as water goes at the highest high tide of a year.

This is commonly thought of as being the vegetation line, but that's not always the indicator, especially if vegetation growth has been promoted, Hashimoto said.

Planting and watering plants on state beaches is not allowed and violators could face a fine of up to $2,000, said Sam Lemmo, director of the DLNR's coastal lands program.

In every case that has been brought to his attention, Lemmo said, the landowner removed the sprinklers and stopped promoting the plant growth when told to stop, and no fines were issued.

Yet, at least twice on Maui, the watering of plants on state land apparently has continued for years until the landowner applied for a shoreline certification, seeking a building permit nearer to the ocean based on the vegetation line.

Shorelines are certified by the state for people to receive county building permits. In general, all Hawaii counties require that permanent structures be set back at least 40 feet from the certified shoreline.

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