Hawaii & Alaska
Kaanapali was the first destination resort area developed on Maui. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2023)

HI - Climate Change: Hawaii Is Giving A Maui Hotel Its Money Back Instead Of Helping Shore Up A Shrinking Beach

Community members, government officials and business executives say recent land board decisions indicate a new approach to the tough decisions that come with sea level rise.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources had for years planned to spend millions of dollars to haul sand from the bottom of the ocean to widen the shrinking beach in front of Kaanapali resorts.

Concerned community members had vowed to fight the project, one of the largest proposed beach replenishment efforts in Hawaii history. They worried that digging up all that sand would harm one of West Maui’s most vibrant reefs that had fed families for generations, while setting a precedent that the government would foot the bill to protect private property that could one day be flooded by rising seas.

But last month in a sudden change of course, the Board of Land and Natural Resources unanimously rejected the plan, which up until that point had been supported by state officials for nearly a decade.

“It’s like our voice is being heard now,” West Maui resident Kekai Keahi told Civil Beat.

The state and the Kaanapali resorts initially entered into a partnership to split the bill for an $800,000 study on the beach replenishment. They then proposed to share the cost of the estimated $10 million project.

But on a Friday in March, when the government body tasked with protecting land and oceans for future generations finally got to discussing the topic, it took just five minutes to reach a decision. The seven-member board, now led by Dawn Chang, all voted against it.

Wayne Hedani, who runs the Kaanapali Operations Association, said he was “caught flat footed” by the decision. He had been told that the March meeting would be routine so he hadn’t even prepared to testify.

The state is now in the process of returning roughly $400,000 back to the resort group to repay its portion of the project’s study. And Maui residents, hotel executives and even government officials are trying to make sense of the decision, and whether it signals a sudden shift in the way government leaders will approach the tough decisions that arise when Hawaii’s beaches and oceanfront property are at risk of being swallowed up by sea level rise.

Both hotel executives and community members on opposite sides of the Kaanapali project point squarely at Chang, who was appointed in December, as a major driver of the change. On the same day that the board shot down the Kaanapali agreement, it made another groundbreaking decisionwhen weighing how to penalize an Oahu oceanfront homeowner repeatedly accused of illegally piling sandbags and boulders in front of his house to stop it from falling into the ocean.

The board gave him a choice: pay record-high fines of $188,000 or haul the house and any trace of utility lines off the oceanfront property.

“Our first obligation is to protect access to the public beach — it’s not to protect private property,” Chang told the homeowner during the March meeting.

The decisions are sending ripples into the government departments that the board oversees.

Michael Cain, administrator of the state’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said in an interview that the March meeting made it clear that the board is willing to back up state employees when they take a firm stance against private property owners who try to harden the shoreline. Oceanfront homeowners have been using sand bags or building sea walls to protect their private property, which then end up destroying the adjoining beaches.

“There are concerns like, why is the state investing millions to protect resort properties and taking a hard line against private properties?” said Cain. “There’s definitely differences between the cases, but it’s a legitimate question.”

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