For more than 25 years, the four man-made beach lagoons at Ko Olina Resort Community on Oahu’s leeward coast have been a favorite seashore recreation spot, not only for the 640-acre development’s visitors and condo owners, but for local residents such as Kym Pine, Honolulu City Council member for District 1 (West Oahu), who lives in Ewa Beach and is the mother of a 5-year-old girl.
“It’s safe, especially for little kids, and that’s my place where I like to take her,” Pine said of the lagoons. “Shallow water, no strong currents.”
Daily public access to the lagoons was established through an agreement among the resort, the state and the City and County of Honolulu, and just over 180 free public parking spaces have been provided, said Sweetie Nelson, the resort’s director of destination marketing.
Although Ko Olina, like most Hawaii resorts and hotels, remains closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, its lagoons were reopened by the resort in accordance with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s order to reopen Oahu beaches May 16.
Thus, Pine said, she was surprised to hear from John Shockley, a Makakilo resident, that the Ko Olina parking lots were still closed.
“People started calling me when they knew the beaches had reopened, but when they tried to go to Ko Olina, the parking lot was closed,” said Shockley, a coordinator for the Free Access Coalition.
“Within the first hour after hearing from John,” Pine said, “ I contacted Ko Olina and said the community would like to have full access like they used to.”
Management told her “it’s complicated,” she said, “because the hotels are closed, so there’s no income” to pay staff to maintain public safety, especially in light of the new, highly contagious virus.
“The resort has been closed, the majority of our businesses are closed and the maintenance of our beaches and lagoons is all privately funded,” Nelson confirmed in a phone interview.
“Without our businesses open, it’s tough to keep up maintenance to the degree everybody was accustomed to — clean, beautiful restrooms, no trash on the beach.”
When the city and state reopened the beaches, “we opened the lagoons so people can come and enjoy them, and we followed government guidelines with social distancing signage and warning about no groups of more than 10,” the marketing director said.
“Our aloha team members (resort security staff) patrol the shorelines periodically, and they do suggest and remind people of the same,” Nelson said, adding things were manageable because public use was “minimal so far,” and social distancing was being respected.
But Doorae Shin, Oahu coordinator of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, a member of the Free Access Coalition, wasn’t buying the excuse.
“They credit COVID-19, that’s part of their justification, but public beaches have been open since May 16,” Shin said, noting that the public is aware of coronavirus safety rules.
She suggested expenses could be “eliminated or minimized by just opening the parking lot and not increasing the restroom and trash service that is already active at this point,” adding, “It doesn’t require maintenance to just open up a parking lot.”
Indeed, parking in the resort’s public parking areas is automatically controlled, as specified by Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting in its 2016 permit allowing the resort to install gates, which “will replace personnel and operate electronically,” the permit says.
DPP states the gates would stand open until the lot was full, then close and reopen when a vehicle left.
“The gates shall not be utilized to restrict public access to the lagoon public parking areas with respect to time limits and/or parking fees, but shall be maintained for the purpose of traffic calming,” it adds.
Public access was a condition imposed by the state Land Use Commission for the proposed Ko Olina development in 1985.
“Petitioner shall dedicate to the City and County public easements for shoreline access to the beach and lagoon areas to be developed on the Property from all internal roadways, and easements for recreational purposes for the use of such beach and lagoon areas and shall improve and dedicate areas for public parking stalls,” the LUC order says.
To check things out, Pine went to Ko Olina on Saturday, getting dropped off by a lagoon parking lot, as other local people have been doing to avoid schlepping their beach gear on a long, hot walk from the resort entrance at Farrington Highway.
Walking around the four lagoons (Lagoon 1 is temporarily closed for dredging and beach sand restoration), Pine, who has thrown her hat into the Honolulu mayoral race, asked local people’s feedback about the lack of parking.
“Many I spoke to said it was humbug to get dropped off, but they were so happy to go there without the tourists and it not being so crowded,” she said.
Some, she added, expressed worry that if the parking opened up, the lagoons would become too crowded again, but she herself preferred to have parking available “as I don’t think I can coordinate getting dropped off on a regular basis.”
With regard to the concerns expressed by Nelson about funding and health concerns during the pandemic, “I’m very hopeful that we can find a way to open lagoons to the public in a very safe manner, and if that’s restricting the number of people so we can be safe as a community, I’m OK with that,” Pine said, “until all this is over and hotels are open to the public again.”
The chairwoman of the Council’s Business, Economic Development and Tourism Committee added she believed the resort was “sincere in trying to figure it out,” but that while access to Hawaii’s shorelines is protected by the landmark Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Public Access Shoreline v. Hawaii County Planning Commission in 1993, it requires continued vigilance.