The Kauai County Council planning committee will continue wrestling today with a coastal development bill that fails to protect rocky shorelines popular with fishermen and used by nesting seabirds.
Draft Bill 2461 would allow much of the island's remaining undeveloped coastline to skip an important process known as shoreline determination. This determination is used to establish building setbacks from the shoreline and public trust area.
A working group convened by former Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura, and including councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, Planning Director Mike Dahilig, planner Kaaina Hull, deputy county attorney Ian Jung and coastal advocates Barbara Robeson and Caren Diamond, worked on the bill for more than a year. But nine months ago, landowner representatives joined the discussion, which was upended by the addition of a sticky little floor amendment that is a developer's dream.
The amendment exempts landowners from needing a shoreline determination if the parcel is outside the most strict V or VE flood zone, the proposed structure or subdivision is 30 feet or more above mean sea level, and/or the applicant can demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Planning Director that the property is clearly adjacent to a rocky shoreline such that it will not affect or be affected by coastal erosion or hazards.
Here's the rub: Maps prepared by University of Hawaii Sea Grant consultant Ruby Pap show nearly the entire coastline would qualify for the so-called “bright line” exemptions.
A TMK list identifies some 545 parcels that could be covered by the exemption, including 1,077 acres owned by the Robinsons, more than 3,500 acres owned by A&B/McBryde, 2,000 acres at Mahaulepu, 40-plus acres at Kealia Kai, more than 100 acres at Aliomanu (Anahola), 200 acres at Moloaa Bay, 408 acres at Waikoko (Hanalei) and nearly 4,500 acres owned by Bruce Robinson.
The amendment is troubling for a number of reasons. By leaving the requirement for determinations up to the discretion of the planning director, it opens the door to back-room dealings that exclude the public. It also greatly increasing the director's work load by requiring him to make a site visit for each application.
What's more, the most recent shoreline study erosion maps considered only sandy shorelines. The rocky shorelines have not been studied, which means there's no scientific basis for determining if they will be affected by coastal erosion or hazards. It's strictly the planning director's call.
The amendment places too much emphasis on a single factor — erosion — rather than considering the full range of coastal hazards, especially those linked to climate change, such as sea level rise and intense coastal storms.
It's also unclear whether exempting landowners from the shoreline determination will eliminate the need for a state shoreline certification, a key mechanism for giving citizens a voice in delineating the public beach. Is it the county's intent to start waiving shoreline certifications?
If the shoreline determination is eliminated, how will the county calculate setbacks? When houses are allowed to hover at the edge of the pali, it seriously intrudes on the seclusion and privacy of rocky shorelines favored by fishermen and beachgoers, impacts nesting seabirds and ruins the view from the beach.
Thorne Abbott, a former Maui coastal planner and shoreline expert, weighed in with a sensible Sept. 16 email to JoAnn, and sent along compelling images of shoreline setback failures. He wrote:
I don't think any property should be exempt from the shoreline setback requirements….
Even with a rocky shoreline and being 30 feet above the ocean, a setback should be required. Sunset Beach [Oahu] lots are well above flood zone. Also, on sheer cliffs the wind is magnified and roof's and eaves more susceptible to damage and failure from high winds. Thus, a good reason to move back a little bit from the pali's edge.
Bottom line is people want to be as close to the ocean as possible. But this puts them and their investment at high risk of damage. Moving back is a good long-term strategy to ensure the investment is sound and the asset (the beach or shoreline) is protected. Plus, it offers public benefits in terms of views and access.
Maui recently allowed construction of a 6000-8000 sf 'farm house' overlooking Honolua Bay, a marine conservation district and high-use, highly attractive, very popular tourist site for snorkeling and diving. The house isn't subject to any coastal hazards being at an elevation of probably 60 or 70 feet above the bay. But it is an omnipresent oppressive injury to the mountain views while snorkeling, and significantly degrades the experience of ocean users (numerous complaints nowadays). The view from inside the house probably can't capture the popular portions of the bay. But from these parts of the bay, the building is quite obvious. This is just because the house wasn't setback a few more feet so that its roofline would be hidden from view. Its setback is 15 feet because it is not a 'shoreline property'.
Is it really worth it to ruin everyone's experience just because one person wants to be extremely close to the ocean. And what happens when that person's home becomes rubble from a hurricane? Who pays?
Setbacks should be easy to implement, not require legal assistance, and follow common sense.
Indeed. At a time when governments are being warned to move development away from the coast and take additional steps to protect coastal structures, the county needs to be erring of the side of caution. Before voting, the Council should remove the “bright line” exemptions from the draft bill.