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Editorial: Get tough on seawalls

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The effects of climate change can’t — shouldn’t — be denied, whether they be from greenhouse gases or sea level rise. And they certainly can’t, shouldn’t, be denied when it comes to an emerging Waimanalo beachfront compound linked to former President Barack Obama, who championed eco-aware policies during his terms in office.

At issue: a stunning 3-acre, century-old beachfront estate bought and being redeveloped by Marty Nesbitt, a close friend of the Obama family. Nesbitt bought the property in 2015, and multiple sources say the Obamas are expected to occupy at least some of the property at times. Land-use exemptions for the project, however, have thrown a spotlight on the controversy of seawalls: structures built to protect beachfront property from rising waves.

Since the 1990s, mounting scientific evidence has shown the detrimental effect of seawalls to beaches, stated the Star-Advertiser’s Sophie Cocke in a special report Sunday in conjunction with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom. The alarm was so great that in 1997, the state released a roadmap for protecting public beaches, emphasizing that seawalls are destroying coastal ecosystems, threatening the tourist-driven economy and limiting the public’s constitutional right to access Hawaii’s beaches and ocean.

The ongoing problem, though: Waivers for seawalls continue to be sought by property owners, and are routinely granted by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, sometimes even over recommendations of its departmental staff.

The Nesbitt-Obama compound, for one, secured a 55-year seawall easement before Nesbitt bought the site, allowing it to retain the wall around the ocean-facing perimeter. Good timing — since, due to climate-change concerns, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources for the first time last year reduced the term for new easements, from 55 years to 25. Even this shorter period, though, decidedly contradicts the department’s general philosophy to let nature take its course.

And in a blatant overreach of a dubious situation, Nesbitt is now asking to enlarge the seawall to protect against sea level rise: a $3.2 million project to nearly double the wall height in some sections and to add two new walls behind it for support. That request, subject to a public hearing, is rightly already facing community opposition.

The Nesbitt-Obama situation raises the profile of a land-use conundrum that persists statewide. With obvious sea level rise and beach erosion, the state should be holding firm against seawall waivers that favor developers and moneyed property owners at the expense of preserving, as much as possible, shorelines for the public.

Over the last two decades, seawall-related bills have emerged at the Legislature — including ones requiring sea-level rise to be taken into account when considering easements — only to fail under construction and development lobbying. It’s been nearly 25 years since the state sounded its own alarm over sea-level rise, coastal erosion and hardened seawalls; it is high time, amid higher tides, for the state to heed its own warnings and enforce tougher policies.

Homeless with COVID-19

A week ago, an outbreak among the homeless clients at the men’s shelter at the Institute for Human Services led the agency to cease further admissions and convert the facility to a residential quarantine center.

As it has with virtually every other facet of community life, the COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened the focus on where the weaknesses in the social fabric lie.

In the case of the homeless, there is a need for a place for those with the disease to isolate and quarantine, said Eddie Mersereau, deputy director for the state Health Department’s Behavioral Health Administration.

When dozens tested positive at the IHS men’s shelter, the nonprofit took on the isolation function while they recuperated, and the administration searched for more quarantine capacity. There are now 60 new units coming online, Mersereau said, a mix of apartment and dormitory spaces.

This includes beds at the Hawaii State Hospital for those who might fall under a court order for mental health treatment, as well as 26 individual units at the new city-owned Kaaahi Street quarantine facility.

The crisis also underscored the challenge of enforcing a quarantine for this population. At Thursday’s count, there were 47 men under quarantine at the shelter, said Connie Mitchell, IHS executive director, but about 18 more walked out.

But that day, fortunately, a court order was signed, Mitchell said, enabling IHS to enforce the quarantine and bring back those diagnosed who must isolate until the infection clears.

COVID-19 also illuminated the urgent need for mental health services not now being met. Mitchell said current law can readily get an individual into emergency treatment but added that more legislation is need to enable better continuity of care without a separate court order.

Advancing such changes should be made easier, now that it’s clearer how it serves a larger public health interest.

“If there’s a silver lining in COVID, it’s really pushed us, in a good way, to actively examine systemic gaps,” Mersereau said.

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