A greatly needed community service project? Or a holiday power play to avoid going through proper channels?
A group of Kailua neighbors is up in arms after volunteers from two canoe clubs hacked away vegetation from a vacant lot on state land Monday, clearing the way for a canoe launch site along the Kawainui Canal, or Oneawa Channel.
The neighbors claim the Memorial Day work project was illegal and will open their homes bordering the canal to trespassing and intrusion.
“They basically opened up a highway to our houses,” said an angry Sue Wadas, who lives along the canal. “It makes us more vulnerable.”
Neighbors said they alerted authorities, and a spokesman for the Honolulu District of the Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Wednesday that it is investigating the incident.
But officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources say the work project by members of the Lanikai and Kailua canoe clubs was legal and aboveboard.
In fact, state Division of Forestry and Wildlife Administrator David Smith was there helping to supervise the work party, which was advertised on a Lanikai Facebook page as an opportunity for members to help create a safe water access to the canal.
Smith, a member and former head coach of the Lanikai club, said the aim of the volunteer project was to clear an area where the Lanikai women’s program can launch canoes on a waterway that leads from Kawainui Marsh to Kailua Bay.
“Vegetation clearing of this type is routine for DLNR,” Smith said in an email. “This area was heavily overgrown and actually needs a bunch more clearing to be in compliance with flood control specifications for the Oneawa canal. The neighbors complain every time we clear the brush there. Every time I work on a holiday people accuse me of doing so to avoid permits.”
Smith said the canoe clubs will have to obtain a special use permit from the Division of State Parks to use the area for canoe launching.
“It was actually a great day, about 70 volunteers, mostly women canoe paddlers and their families,” he said.
The property, off Mokapu Boulevard and on the edge of Hawaii’s largest wetland, was identified in the 1994 Kawainui Marsh Master Plan as a proposed park and canoe launching area, and it remains that way in the current Kawainui-Hamakua Marsh Complex Master Plan Update, which has not been finalized.
Neighbors say they learned of the work project only on the Friday before Memorial Day and were unable to either stop it or find out whether it was legally authorized.
When the volunteer work party showed up with an excavator Monday morning, one angry resident recorded the activity and posted a 10-minute video on YouTube with the title, “Lanikai Canoe Club Members Illegally Clear Kawai Nui Marsh.”
Some residents wondered aloud whether the event was timed for the holiday to deliberately avoid regulatory scrutiny.
“The bottom line from our perspective is that there’s a process you go through, and there’s a process for a reason,” said Raoul Magana, a resident who lives on the canal.
Magana said most of the neighbors understand the land is designated as the future Kawainui State Park Reserve. But, he said, those plans have not been finalized, and that when they are, they require the implementation of certain protections, such as fencing, for the safety of the neighborhood.
He said he and his neighbors already have to worry about homeless people living in the area and others traveling through their yards to go fishing. But now, because of Monday’s work, they remain even more vulnerable, they say.
Smith, a veteran Division of Forestry and Wildlife biologist who was promoted to the division’s top post in February, contends that clearing vegetation along canal banks is not a violation of Army Corps of Engineers rules. On the contrary, the regulations call for the banks to be free of brush or trees.
Another off-duty federal law enforcement officer was at the site Monday, Smith said, and she agreed the work was legal.
“I have been doing this many years and know the rules. I have had the corps called out on me in the past on other projects around Kailua and have been compliant,” he said.
As for the homeless, DLNR patrols and enforces a no-camping policy on the property.
“Homeless issues are a real problem at Kawainui, so we are constantly working to keep them from setting up on our property,” he said.
A gate was installed there recently, he said, and HC&D, formerly Ameron, donated some big rocks, securing the parcel and allowing access for management.
The proposed park includes a small parking lot plus an area for assembling canoes and launching from the canal bank. There will be no park amenities such as restrooms or showers, and public access will be allowed by permit only.
“As a land manager, I would love to have a group in there maintaining a portion of it and keeping an eye on things,” Smith said.
Smith, who coached Lanikai’s women’s program for about 10 years, said a new access point is badly needed because a couple of other launch sites along the canal have been shut down recently due to private property issues.