State rules diminish
public’s shoreline holdings


A lawsuit seeks to stop the state from using vegetation lines as a way to determine shoreline boundaries.

ALIGNING the laws of humans and the laws of nature has proven troublesome, as a legal challenge of state rules used to determine shoreline boundaries illustrates.

A suit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club and Public Access Shoreline Hawai'i appears to make a valid point that the rules improperly place more weight on one measure than another, and as a result, shrinks public property and access to beaches and coastal areas.

The groups contend that by favoring vegetation lines as markers over debris lines, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources is not conforming to Hawaii law.

In landmark decisions establishing public ownership of shorelines, the Hawaii Supreme Court set borders at "the upper reaches of the wash of waves, usually evidenced by the edge of vegetation or by the line of debris left by the wash of the waves."

The board, however, allows consideration of debris lines only when there is no vegetation in the vicinity. Even when the wash of waves -- as indicated by the debris left behind -- reaches beyond vegetation, vegetation takes precedence, the groups say.

This preference has encouraged beachfront property owners to extend landscaping toward the ocean, potentially increasing their holdings because the boundaries form a baseline from which development is allowed.

When structures, such as seawalls, are built too close to the ocean and later are threatened by fluctuations of the shoreline or because they themselves cause erosion, the conflict between private and public interest heightens. Both parties end up losing. The public's lateral access disappears along with the sand; private landowners see the ocean edging closer to their houses.

Land board chairman Peter Young says his agency is well aware that some landowners artificially cultivate vegetation beyond property lines and does not rely solely on those lines. Still, the law does not allow for the preference, and it seems reasonable that debris lines better indicate the reach of the waves.

Environmental organizations have attempted to clarify the laws through new legislation, including eliminating the ambiguous vegetation lines as an index, but their efforts have been unsuccessful. They also have urged the state to change its rules, also to no avail. The result is the suit.

Living next to the ocean sometimes gives beachfront dwellers a sense of ownership beyond what's on property maps. Disputes about noise from picnickers, access paths and parking often arise. It is easy to forget that shorelines in Hawaii are part of a unique public trust and as such are to be shared by all.

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