For decades, homeowners in Punalu‘u watched from large picture windows as locals sunned on the beach and dove for octopus amid the coral reefs of northeast Oahu.
But year after year, the ocean inched closer and closer to their wooden beach houses, and by 2006, it was threatening to claw them away.
Two homeowners asked the state for permission to erect mounds of sandbags along the beach for protection.
Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources agreed, with one key condition: The emergency measures would be temporary. Such shoreline structures can hasten beach erosion, and state officials were trying to ensure that didn’t happen. The homeowners had a few years to come up with long-term plans for their homes and remove the sandbags.
But as the deadlines approached, state officials granted them an extension. Then, another. The decisions set off a cascade of armoring along the coastline, as neighboring homeowners put up their own sandbags to guard against seasonal waves and rising seas.
Today, nearly 15 years later, the sandbags remain and the beach is largely gone. If members of the public want to reach the ocean, they must clamber over a makeshift seawall, covered by black and tan fabric and held together with rope, and past “No Trespassing” and “Danger” signs.
Despite the warning markers, this shoreline — like all beaches in Hawaii — is supposed to belong to the public. Under state law, anything below the high wash of the waves during the time of the year that the ocean is highest is public land, and officials are obligated to protect and preserve it.
But as coastal homeowners face rising sea levels brought on by climate change, the state is increasingly approving sandbags and other structures that are speeding the loss of its beaches.
Over the past two decades, the Department of Land and Natural Resources has granted 66 emergency shoreline permits to property owners across the islands. Nearly half are located on Oahu’s North Shore, known as the Seven Mile Miracle, famous for its abundance of prime surf breaks and stunning beaches. Among the beneficiaries are famous surfers like Fred Patacchia as well as owners of high-end vacation homes that can rent for more than $1,000 a night.
The permits are typically limited to three years, but the sandbags are rarely removed when they expire, according to a review of hundreds of pages of documents by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica. Instead, state officials repeatedly grant property owners extensions or don’t enforce their own deadlines. One in 5 of the emergency permits in the news organizations’ review were granted for structures that were built illegally. Regulators levied small fines but authorized the sandbags after the fact.
Property owners who receive the emergency protections are expected to come up with long-term plans for their homes, but documents and interviews with owners show they almost never do.
As a result, walls of sandbags have dotted treasured and environmentally sensitive coastlines throughout the islands for years, and sometimes decades. As the news organizations reported this summer, Oahu has already lost about one-quarter of its beaches to shoreline hardening, and scientists warn that figure could rise to 40% by 2050.
Top officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources declined interview requests for this story but defended their actions in written responses to questions. Sam Lemmo, who leads the department’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said that the department began issuing the emergency approvals in the 1990s to deter homeowners from building illegal seawalls — large stone or concrete barriers that are more difficult to remove.
He said his office regularly evaluates the sandbags and any impacts they are having on the beach and reserves the right to terminate the permits at any time, though records indicate that rarely happens. Of the 66 emergency permits granted by the department over the past two decades, the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica found just one such termination.
“One of our main concerns is the potential for the homes to fail and end up on the beach,” Lemmo said. “That is in no one’s best interest.”
Critics, however, say that what was intended as a stopgap measure to help coastal property owners adjust to climate change is instead becoming permanent permission to stay put. Indeed, the emergency sandbag approvals are helping to prolong the lifespans of homes that may otherwise be severely damaged or destroyed by the ocean, with some owners selling their properties for six-figure profits after obtaining emergency permits from the state.
One of the homes in Punalu‘u that received the emergency protection in 2006, for example, sold for $1.3 million last year. The other home is currently for sale for $995,000, according to real estate listings.
“Live the dream!” an ad for the home on Realtor.com reads, enticing prospective buyers to wake up to the “sound of the waves and breathe in the ocean air.”
The sandbag structure in front of the home expired in July, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources. But the property’s real estate agent, who was getting ready to host an open house at the end of November, said that it was her understanding that the sandbags could remain.
Lance Collins, an attorney who has represented community groups fighting against shoreline hardening on Maui’s west side, said that ultimately the emergency approvals represent a failure on the part of state officials to plan for the realities of sea level rise and the need to oversee a managed retreat from the shoreline. The message it sends to property owners, Collins said, is, “OK, you made a bad investment decision, but we are going to destroy our environment to allow you to protect yourself against that risk.”
Some lawmakers said the land department needs to ensure sandbags aren’t becoming long-term structures causing permanent damage.
“We refuse to address the fact that we have infrastructure that is going to be inundated,” said state Rep. Tina Wildberger, who represents south Maui in the Legislature and was vice chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection during this year’s legislative session. “We’ve got to stop the Band-Aids.”
“DO YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO PROTECT YOUR HOUSE?”
Living on the coast has always been a risky proposition.
State laws and Hawaii Supreme Court rulings have repeatedly prioritized beaches over private property: As the ocean migrates landward, so does the public shoreline. The threat to property owners is projected to grow much worse with several thousand structures expected to be lost or damaged with 3.2 feet of sea level rise, which could occur by 2060, according to state projections.
So for years, scientists and policymakers have fretted about the need to come up with plans and policies to spur homeowners to move inland from Hawaii’s coasts. Little, however, has come of it, leaving property owners with no guidance as to what to do.
If they allow their homes to be destroyed by the ocean, owners can be on the hook for cleanup costs and potentially liable if the debris injures beachgoers or harms the environment.
Some coastal homeowners say the emergency permits are critical. “Without those sandbags our house would be gone right now,” said Josh Greig of his home in Laie, along the northeast coast of Oahu. The state approved sandbags in 2017, but the permit expired in September. When asked about the sandbags this month, state officials said they would be contacting the owners about the expiration.
Greig said his family, which has owned the property for the past two decades, can barely afford to demolish the home, let alone move it back on the property line.
For the state, options range from not providing any financial compensation or assistance to property owners, and just letting nature take its course, to buying out the properties — a cost that could prove exorbitant for the public.
But that discussion isn’t happening in any meaningful way, said Chip Fletcher, a coastal geologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who has spent decades studying Hawaii’s coastlines.
So the sandbags just sit there, a symbol of the state’s dying beaches.
They line stretches of coastline in Mokuleia on the North Shore of Oahu. Once a stunning coastline with powdery, white sand, large sections of the beach are now studded with sandbags, boulders and seawalls. On Maui, massive sandbags front resorts and condos along the island’s popular westside beaches where thousands of visitors flock annually.
Officially, the state has a “no tolerance” policy for new shoreline armoring. Property owners can still apply to build a seawall, but the hurdles are high. Proposals require a formal environmental review, public hearing and approval by the board that oversees the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
But the emergency permits allow property owners to bypass that review entirely. There is no formal application. An owner simply writes a letter to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, arguing that a home, condo or hotel is “imminently threatened,” meaning erosion is within 20 feet of a structure. If the director of the department agrees, the state issues a temporary permit. Not all requests are granted. Since 2000, the department has rejected 28 petitions while granting 66, according to records.
There’s another perk. Typically, property owners have to pay the state fair-market value to lease the public land that is under a seawall, which can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But with a temporary permit, property owners get to occupy the beach for free, despite the sandbags often taking up much more space along the public shoreline.
The informal nature of the process has meant that many of the permits have escaped public scrutiny. Collins, the attorney fighting sandbags on Maui, said the system is “a gross violation of all the open-government and community participation laws that are on the books.”
Some of Hawaii’s top lawmakers agree.
Wildberger called the approvals “clandestine,” while state Sen. Kai Kahele, who chaired the Senate Water and Land Committee this past year, said he was unaware of the department’s practices until the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica informed him. Kahele, who was elected to Congress last month, said the emergency permits shouldn’t last more than a year and the public needs to be given an opportunity to weigh in. The sandbags, he said, “should not become permanent fixtures on our shorelines.”
Follow-up enforcement by the department, however, can be spotty.
When the permit for the sandbags fronting Greg Kempson’s house in Waialua expired in 2016, he said no one from the state contacted him.
Two years later, he emailed officials at the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands to alert them and ask if there was anything he needed to do to remain in compliance.
A state official thanked him for the reminder, noted the sandbags had been there for 12 years and suggested he email the office with his long-term plans for the property. The official did not provide a deadline for removing the sandbags. Months later, Kempson sold the property for $900,000. The sandbag barricade was still there when the news organizations recently visited the property. State officials said “the case fell through the cracks” and they would be contacting the owners immediately.
“It comes down to, Do you have the right to protect your house?” Kempson said in an interview.
Experts warn that those protections come with big environmental costs though. Unless beaches are allowed to naturally push inland, especially as sea levels rise, they will disappear.
“Fundamentally, there is only one answer if we don’t want to steal beaches from our children and grandchildren,” said Fletcher, the coastal geologist. “The only answer is those locations have to go from private ownership to public ownership. They need to essentially become beach parks, and we need to assist the transition of those owners out of those locations.”
A SURFER’S PARADISE
It’s hard to overstate the power of the ocean along Oahu’s North Shore. During big winter swells, the ocean is only safe for the most experienced surfers. The faces of waves can reach 50-foot heights at the peak of the season. Even during the summer months, the ocean can look deceptively calm and lifeguards can find themselves rescuing dozens of people in a single day.
The ocean’s strength creates a particularly dangerous situation for both homeowners and the public. Powerful waves are eating away at parts of the state highway that runs around the tip of Oahu, and they have forced the closure of sections of public beach parks there. In recent years, the ocean has pulled wooden planks with protruding nails from lanais and fences and portions of concrete foundations into the pounding water, threatening the safety of anyone in the ocean or walking along the beach.
In past years, state officials have allowed property owners to bulldoze large amounts of sand up to the front of their homes in preparation for seasonal threats, a practice that scientists say may also harm the beach. But they typically opposed more aggressive measures to protect homes.
In August 2017, for example, the department rejected a homeowner’s request to place sandbags along the North Shore’s Sunset Beach.
Suzanne Case, director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, warned the structure could cause beach loss in front of neighboring properties, while emphasizing the importance of Sunset Beach — an “area renowned for its natural environment, public beach and surfing resources” that’s used by thousands of residents and visitors every year.
Toward the end of 2017, though, many North Shore homeowners decided to ignore prior denials and armored their shorelines with sandbags and heavy fabric as waves pummeled their properties.
Eight homeowners along Pupukea and Laniakea beaches hired Gundaker Works to install the protections in front of their homes without getting the state’s permission.
One of them was Betty Suratt, a local real estate agent. A winter swell had peeled off her fence and hedges, and the ocean was taking the soil by the minute, as water came within 2 feet of the home’s foundation.
“There was no waiting for anybody to give a permit,” she said.
After that, sandbags and heavy, black tarps went up all along the North Shore coastline. The structures — long rows of sand wrapped in thick fabric — are known locally as burritos. The state ultimately approved 30 of them, including a dozen that were installed illegally but given after-the-fact authorizations.
The state can issue fines of up to $15,000 a day to property owners who erect illegal shoreline structures. But department records show that just six North Shore homeowners were fined for violations; each was charged $2,000, a small fraction of the maximum penalty.
Regulators also fined Gundaker Works $500 for installing six unauthorized barriers. Mark Ticconi, the company’s operations director, said he wasn’t worried that the structures might cause beach loss.
“We have plenty of beaches on this island that if you just let them go it’s not going to affect anyone,” he said. “We still have plenty of places to go to the beach.”
He added that there isn’t that much that’s enjoyed on the beach itself anyway. “A lot of it is enjoyed with water activities, with paddling, with surfing, with windsurfing, with all this other stuff — kayaking,” he said.
Homeowners told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica that the sandbag structures cost them tens of thousands of dollars.
While some people “jumped the gun,” Lemmo said, the threat to the homes was severe enough to grant after-the-fact approvals. “Larger fines don’t necessarily solve the problem or set people straight,” he said.
State officials haven’t approved everything that North Shore property owners have installed.
In 2018, Kelly Slater, an 11-time world surfing champion who lives on Ehukai Beach by the world-famous Banzai Pipeline surf break, illegally installed a burrito. He, as well as his neighbors, were fined just $2,000.
Slater paid the fine and wrote to the Department of Land and Natural Resources last year asking it to approve his illegal structure so his home would be protected from future hurricane surf, as well as unexpected and seasonal weather. Lemmo, in response, rejected the request and underscored the seriousness of the situation.
“Unfortunately, we have reached a tipping point in which near complete loss of beach resources is a realistic future due to sea level rise and the prevalence of [densely] urbanized shoreline development,” he wrote to Slater, noting that the situation on the North Shore is particularly precarious.
Lemmo added that if the state doesn’t enforce strict policies controlling shoreline armoring “it could set in motion a [domino] effect leading to chronic beach loss.”
Still, he left the door open to a future approval, inviting Slater to submit additional information about the structure that was installed and why it was needed. Lemmo said his office is still waiting on the surfer to provide the details about his emergency barrier, which has been in place for more than two years.
In a brief phone interview, Slater, known for his environmental activism, said that without the sandbags people “would have lost properties outright.” He did not respond to a request for a follow-up interview.
Today, some of the homes along Sunset Beach are precariously perched on cliffs of sand. This summer, surfers created a makeshift staircase out of small sandbags just to scale the dropoff to the beach so they could paddle out to Kammieland, one of the North Shore’s many surf breaks. The backwash from waves hitting the shore made the surfing there bumpy. The burritos and heavy tarps had completely blocked the public’s ability at times to walk along the beach.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
But there’s little evidence that North Shore property owners who have been allowed to install the burritos are adapting or developing long-term plans, as the Department of Land and Natural Resources requires. Even though the state has classified the homes as “imminently threatened” by the ocean, some owners have continued to rent them out for hundreds of dollars a night to vacationers.
Jim Haas, who owns a house down the shore near Chun’s Reef, received permission from the state in 2018 to put in a burrito after large surf destroyed his stone and mortar staircase and pulled the lanai off his property.
Today, Haas rents the 2,900-square foot vacation home for $450 a night. He touts its location on a nearly “private” beach, billing the lack of nearby access for the public as a plus, according to an ad on Vrbo.
Haas told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica he now wants a seawall to protect the house — and he believes the state should pay for it. Haas noted that a highway runs just behind his home and along the shoreline. Armoring the shoreline in front of his home, he argued, would also protect the public highway.
Other property owners are cashing in in different ways: selling their homes for a profit to buyers who seem surprisingly unaware of the mess they’re inheriting.
About one-third of the North Shore homes that received emergency authorizations beginning in 2018 have been sold or listed for sale, according to a search of city property records and real estate listings. Despite the impending threat of rising seas, the homes are commanding record high prices.
In October 2018, Joseph Ekstrom bought his Hawaii dream home in Laniakea for $3.3 million, up $675,000 from its previous sales price five years earlier. The prior owner had installed burritos in front of the home just months earlier. Like others put in around that time, they were permitted for about three years and are now set to expire in January.
Reached by phone, Ekstrom told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica that he didn’t know that his sandbags were considered temporary. He said he didn’t know what to do.
When buying the house, he said his burritos were marketed as a selling point.
“It was portrayed as an extra,” said Ekstrom.
Ralph Gray, the real estate agent who represented the seller, said he provided all government documents related to the structure prior to the sale. “The temporary nature of the abatement is clearly described,” he said.
State Sen. Gil Riviere, who represents the North Shore and was briefed on the news organizations’ findings, said he intended to introduce legislation in January that requires sellers to clearly warn prospective buyers about the property risks. He introduced a similar measure in 2018, but it got little traction. The Hawaii Association of Realtors argued the bill was unnecessary because the trade group had created its own form warning of the risks for buying oceanfront property.
For years, Alice Lunt had been battling the ocean as it threatened her house along Sunset Beach. In 2018, she finally sold it for $2 million to Gary Karrass, who describes himself as “an internationally recognized authority on negotiation” and author of “Negotiate to Close: How to Make More Successful Deals.”
He secured approval from the Department of Land and Natural Resources to install a burrito and tarp in front of his property to protect it from the ocean. Months later, in September 2019, he sold it at a half a million dollar profit. Karrass did not return requests for comment.
The new owners, Gary and Cynthia Stanley, then installed additional, unauthorized burritos to protect the home, where Gary said he and his wife wanted to raise their six children. Afterward, he outlined his case for the sandbags in a letter to Case, the department’s director. Stanley acknowledged that a structural engineer had surveyed the property before the sale and told him that the house was “experiencing extreme erosion” and “was one of the worst he had seen.” Indeed, the engineer told him it was falling into the ocean.
But Stanley said his concerns about the property were assuaged by the belief that he could just install more burritos.
“We want it to be a safe place … and also structurally sound,” he wrote to Case, asking her to approve the unauthorized burritos. The department declined the request, fined the couple $2,000 and told them to remove the illegal sandbags. The Stanleys paid the penalty and took out the burritos. The department later approved a new temporary erosion system that doesn’t extend so far onto the beach.
Earlier this year, the Stanleys listed the home for sale for nearly $3 million, according to a listing on OahuRE.com, a real estate site. The price was reduced last month to $2.69 million.
Meanwhile, several authorized burritos are set to begin expiring in January. Officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources wouldn’t say whether they would force the North Shore sandbags to be taken out when they expire.
But Suratt, the local real estate agent, summed up the prevailing feeling in the community: “Do you really think we’re going to remove them?”
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica are spending the year investigating the state’s disappearing beaches. Please get in touch with reporter Sophie Cocke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 808-295-1851 if you have information you want to share about seawalls or other shoreline hardening structures.
Sophie Cocke is a reporter with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. She has covered government and politics in Hawaii for the past decade.