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Land rules changes overdue

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The state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands has stewardship over much of Hawaii’s most prized assets, which means its mission is to strike a balance between property owners who want to use their land and those advocating for the public interest. The regulations it uses haven’t been adjusted since 1994, and in the intervening years concern has mounted that natural forces are reshaping the coastline, forces that may be amplifying due to global warming and rising sea levels.


The final public hearing on the proposed rule changes is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Kapaa Library, Kauai. However, the rules can be downloaded (, with comments accepted through Sept. 7. By mail: Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, 1151 Punchbowl St., room 131, Honolulu, HI 96813. By e-mail:

So it is a welcome development that among the amendments the office has proposed is one to compel new construction to be moved further inland from the shoreline, especially in areas of active erosion. According to the draft revision, the shoreline setback line would be a distance inland calculated as 40 feet from the certified shoreline, plus 70 times the average annual coastal erosion rate. This means construction could come closer to the water along rocky shorelines than, for example, sandy beaches, where waves may wash away some frontal acreage.

This is important to the protection of public access to beaches, which often are stripped away by the construction of seawalls up to the high wash of the waves. Research done by the University of Hawaii is filling out the database needed to set the line. The absence of this data in the development of much of the shoreline of Oahu has led to conflicts over seawalls and erosion in Waikiki and elsewhere, so it’s good to have this guidance going forward. Implementing this rule will give property owners clear and advance notice of where buildings or any construction actually can occur, and bar construction that creates gaps in the beach and forces the public to wade into the water to get from one part to another.

Among other issues meriting discussion:

» Structures that have nonconforming use permits should have to undergo review if they are demolished. The proposed rule change would effectively grandfather in these uses forever, and the state needs the option to reconsider them.

» The new rules would properly constrain the people who can appeal an administrative decision to those with a demonstrable interest in the property. That will help to streamline the permitting process, and there is enough leeway in the new wording to accommodate appeals by people with a legitimate claim – native Hawaiians seeking to protect gathering rights, for example.

» The rules would wisely ease permit requirements for combating invasive species on conservation land, with the land board reserving the right to require a site plan in cases that could cause secondary impacts on natural or cultural resources.

The balancing of land rights inevitably produces a tension among stakeholders that requires adjustments over time. Although there is still time to consider public comments (see box), the current set of amendments is an effort to make such adjustments and deserves general support.

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