Hawaii & Alaska
Brittany Lyte / Honolulu Civil Beat

HI - The Situation Is Critical’: Saving This Maui Beach Won’t Be Easy Or Cheap

Government agencies, scientists, property owners and beachgoers have banded together to find a solution to chronic erosion at Maui’s Kahana Bay.

LAHAINA, Maui — Perched on Maui’s westernmost edge, nine condominium towers at Kahana Bay offer owners and guests a sweeping oceanfront panorama with distant views of Molokai and Lanai and an up-close seat to the seasonal parade of breaching humpback whales.

But the tradeoff of this water’s edge location is the anticipatory dread of watching the sea steadily erode the beach and the value of the coastal real estate.

The ocean has destroyed condominium pool decks, cabanas, stairs and walkways. Seawalls installed to protect the shoreline have only worsened the problem. Thousands of sandbags piled up are merely a Band-Aid to buy time to find a more lasting solution.

In some places, the beach has completely vanished.

The mounting erosion crisis at Kahana Bay has led nearly 1,000 condo unit owners and one private homeowner to join together to find a comprehensive solution after having exhausted various short-term, piecemeal efforts to thwart the intensifying effects of sea level rise, king tides and storm surges.

Signs of the surf eating away at the beach at Kahana Bay were apparent when the collection of condo buildings on the beach went up in the 1970s, but there were no government rules to dictate how far new construction should be located away from the encroaching shoreline.

The condos have since become symbols of the significant danger of allowing construction too close to shore. At stake is the fate of a half-billion dollars worth of real estate and $10 million in tax revenue.

Last month the group known as the Kahana Bay Steering Committee offered state regulators a plan to upset the cycle of beach loss and property damage with a three-pronged erosion control project focused on beach restoration.

With an estimated price tag of $26 million to $40 million and an undetermined source of funding, the erosion defense described in a draft environmental impact statement promises to grow the vanishing beach by about 65 feet. Currently, less than 6 feet of land separates some of the condominium buildings from the high wave mark.

The plan is the culmination of many years of collaboration between condo owners, county planners, state regulators and community members who use the beach for recreation and fishing. But with so many social, cultural, economic and legal implications, there are many opinions on the best way forward.

“The conversations are very difficult right now because there really aren’t that many tools in the coastal management toolbox,” said Tara Owens, a coastal hazards specialist with the University of Hawaii Sea Grant Program on Maui.

“You have the extreme solutions like letting things fall into the ocean, which obviously isn’t very desirable,” she said. “Then there are a lot of people in the community who are really interested in seeing some type of retreat from the shoreline. But that’s not very easy or realistic in Hawaii because our property values are so high.”

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