Thursday, November 26, 2015         


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Hawaii's beaches at risk from bill awaiting governor's signature

By Adam L. Ayers and Jack Kittinger


The people of Hawaii need to understand the implications of new legislation that would change the way we manage our sensitive coastal areas.

The Hawaii Legislature recently passed House Bill 117 HD2, which, if signed by the governor, would revise a critical aspect of Hawaii's coastal zone management program. It would relax standards for permitted coastal construction in the coastal zone and eliminate environmental oversight for our shorelines.

In case you haven't already noticed, many of Hawaii's precious beaches — which draw tourists from around the world and support countless cultural and recreational activities — are shrinking. Beach erosion is caused by natural processes that we have no control over. However, our policy allowing coastal landowners to build seawalls and other structures along our scenic shorelines is something we can control. Seawalls and other structures may protect private property, but they have also been shown to result in permanent beach loss.

The problem with HB 117 HD2 is that private property owners along the shoreline would be given preferential treatment over the publicly owned beach under state law. Hawaii Revised Statute 205A-2 already allows coastal property owners to build erosion-control structures such as seawalls under cases of "hardship," when the ocean reaches within 20 feet of their structure.

Around Oahu, the results of seawalls and shoreline "armoring" have been dramatic. Our estimates — published in the journal Coastal Management — suggest that roughly 40 percent of Oahu's 112-mile coastline is fronted by man-made structures such as seawalls, compared to only 7 percent in the early 1970s. As seawalls and other structures proliferate, the public loses more beautiful sandy beaches.

Both HB 117 HD2 and the existing HRS 205A-2 loophole would elevate the interests of coastal landowners above those of the general public.

Yet another issue affecting beach loss is sea level rise. Conservative estimates project sea levels to increase by 3 feet or more by the end of this century. What will happen to new and existing coastal development as the shoreline continues to move further inland?

Fortunately, sea level rise will not overwhelm Hawaii overnight. We likely have a few decades until sea level rise begins to seriously affect Hawaii, giving us a narrow window to create laws that could protect our beaches.

One option is to make the construction of new seawalls or other shoreline armoring structures illegal except when they benefit the public (e.g., for boat harbors or those protecting critical infrastructure).

A strong anti-armoring policy would discourage development in sensitive coastal areas by passing the risk from the public domain to private landowners that own or build along the coastline.

Other states, such as North Carolina, have had success with this approach.

Other options include regulating new coastal development in areas prone to erosion or sea level rise, rezoning areas susceptible to coastal hazards (such as hurricanes and tsunamis), and creating a coastal commission to review permits and weigh the costs and benefits of coastal development.

These are not the only options available to policymakers and coastal managers, but they should be considered. Unfortunately, our legislators have chosen to place Hawaii's beautiful beaches at greater risk by passing HB 117 HD2.

Reconfiguring coastal policy to better protect Hawaii's valuable coastal resources should be a priority to ensure that sandy beaches remain available toHawaii's citizens and keiki for many generations to come.

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