POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 3, 2014
A collection of North Shore residents and surfers started the new year Thursday with a lawsuit against state transportation officials to remove the controversial new parking barriers at Laniakea Beach.
The Circuit Court suit on behalf of an unincorporated group called the Save Laniakea Coalition argues that the state Department of Transportation should have obtained a special permit for the concrete barriers because Laniakea is in the state's protected coastal Special Management Area.
The suit further contends that DOT should have done environmental assessments of the barriers before installing them, to gauge how the move would affect public access to the popular beach. The barriers are part of the state's larger, long-term Kamehameha Highway realignment plan at Laniakea — and as such they're subject to the same approval steps, said Bill Saunders, a Honolulu-based attorney representing Save Laniakea.
The worsening North Shore traffic woes that stem from Laniakea — and how to solve the problem — have gripped a community that's already dealing with issues such as future development, a growing population and the rural area's changing character. About 600,000 visitors are estimated to visit Laniakea each year, many to marvel at the green sea turtles that come ashore there.
The state installed the barriers two days before Christmas to block cars, vans and tour buses from parking along a 1,000-foot beachfront stretch on the mauka side of Kamehameha Highway. The move aims to ease the traffic and safety hazards caused by visitors who indiscriminately cross the highway there.
"This isn't a solution. It's a punishment," former big-wave surfing champion Reno Abellira, one of the suit's plaintiffs, said Thursday. Abellira and other opponents of the barriers contend they unfairly block beach access and that the community deserves a better, more practical solution. "This problem isn't going to go away; it's only going to get worse," Abellira said.
He's joined in the suit by prominent local surfers and watermen Keone Downing, Mark Cunningham and Jock Sutherland, as well as Sunset Beach resident Bill Martin, a surfer who uses a wheelchair and relies on Laniakea as one of the few North Shore sites he can access.
DOT officials said they were unaware that the suit was being filed Thursday, and that they won't comment on any litigation. They've previously described the barriers as "short-term" and "temporary" while also acknowledging they could stay there for years if they prove effective. DOT last week said it would monitor the barriers for a month and then decide whether to keep them.
The barriers come after years of study, community discussion and about $1.7 million in state funding — but little action.
"Is it working? I would say, to a certain extent, yes," North Shore Neighborhood Board member Carol Philips said Thursday. "But nobody in the community likes the idea of blocking off the parking lot as the solution."
Both the neighborhood board and the Laniakea Task Force, a committee created by the state, have voted against the barriers. But the structures did gain some early, limited support when officials pitched them as the only viable solution, Philips said. "I think that is the frustration with the community. While we need traffic relief, there were no alternatives considered at all."
Others, including Abellira, say the barriers haven't solved the traffic jams and safety hazards. Instead, they say, the barriers have merely pushed those problems away from Laniakea, as visitors instead park along Kamehameha Highway's narrow shoulders and walk to the beach.
And since the barriers were installed, opponents have taken to social media sites to post photos of cars inching along Kamehameha Highway on both sides of Laniakea, which they say show the traffic problem remains. "All they've really done is pushed up the congestion," Abellira said. At a news conference, he implored Gov. Neil Abercrombie and Mayor Kirk Caldwell to make the issue a bigger priority.
Philips, in a separate phone interview, agreed.
"The government has the ability to act quickly if they're motivated," she said.