Posted on June 7, 2023
Hotels and condos along Maui’s famous Kaanapali Beach are divided over whether to move forward with a controversial $10 million beach restoration project nearly three months after the board that oversees the state Department of Land and Natural Resources pulled its support for shouldering half its costs.
While the resort properties haven’t given up on the project, there is little interest in paying its full cost, said Wayne Hedani, president of the Kaanapali Operations Association, which includes 11 hotels and condos, two shopping centers and two golf courses. He said one option may be a scaled-down version of the project.
The resort association has long hoped the project, which has been in the works since 2006, would restore, albeit temporarily, the public beach that has become increasingly pinched from erosion while protecting the popular beachfront resorts that draw about half a million tourists annually.
The Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision in March to nix the state’s cost-sharing agreement with the association didn’t kill the project. But board members sent a strong message that even if the resort association committed to fully funding the beach restoration project, in the end they still may reject it.
The resort association still must obtain numerous government approvals and permits for the project, including a critical conservation district use permit at the discretion of the Land Board.
In a recent interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Hedani, who didn’t testify during the March hearing, criticized the Land Board and in particular its new chair, Dawn Chang, for throwing cold water on the project, calling it a political decision made in the interest of Gov. Josh Green, who took office in December and appointed Chang.
Community members opposed to the project had vowed to make Kaanapali the next Mauna Kea, a reference to the movement to block the Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii island that beset former Gov. David Ige’s administration.
Chang didn’t “want to hang an albatross around Josh Green’s neck like the TMT was a problem for David Ige, and that is why she jettisoned the project,” Hedani said.
He said it was “a political solution that ignored the practical problems that needed to be solved,” adding that the resorts could hold out for a change in administration.
“It took us 17 years to get here and then get turned down and then have some people say no,” Hedani said. “We can wait for four years and push for a new administration to see if they are inclined to take another look at it. If it takes four years, or eight, or 10 years or 20 years, the commitment to the resort is something that has to be long term at this particular point.”
Chang rejected his characterization of the Land Board’s action, pointing out that the vote by the seven-member board was unanimous. She said it was “far from a political decision” and instead reflected “a sense of responsibility by the board to not use public funds to benefit private property owners.”
“What we did hear is overwhelming public testimony from cultural practitioners, residents of the area, people who use Kaanapali or don’t use it because it is primarily a place for visitors who are using the Kaanapali hotels, all testify in opposition of the use of state public funds for what many perceived as a private benefit to the privately owned hotels along Ka‘anapali,” Chang said in emailed comments to the Star-Advertiser. “There were many who testified that the removal of off-shore sand to replenish the beach was culturally offensive.”
The beach restoration project aims to nearly double the size of the beach, restoring it to its 1988 width by using a crane and clam-shell bucket to dredge 75,000 cubic yards of sand from offshore. But opponents, which have included some of the island’s most outspoken advocates for safeguarding public beaches, have raised a litany of concerns about the environmental damage the project could have on the reef and other marine resources.
Additionally, the fix would be temporary. The restored beach is projected to last, at most, 20 years. Major storms and accelerated erosion rates could reduce that timeframe, at which point the resort association has hoped to repeat the process.
Rather than spending millions on mining sand, opponents say state policy should be aimed at forcing a retreat from the coastline to allow beaches to naturally push inland.
Indeed, the oceanfront resorts and condos along Kaanapali Beach have been threatened by the ocean for years, and state sea-level projections show the situation growing dire in the coming decades.
Development of the resort began in 1959. By the late 1990s, the beach walk that runs more than a mile along eight beachfront properties began suffering damage. In 1998, a portion of the beach walk near Puu Kekaa collapsed after a prolonged swell, and heavy plates were driven into the sand to protect the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa’s pool, according to an environmental assessment completed for the proposed beach nourishment project.
In 2003, the beach walk along Ka‘anapali Ali‘i Resort and surrounding vegetation was damaged amid high surf. In 2008, a severe Kona storm caused rapid beach erosion and damage to the beach walk at Hanakaoo Point.
Five years later, in 2013, severe erosion further undermined the beach walk fronting the Hyatt Regency Maui.
Amid the ongoing erosion, DLNR granted the Hyatt Regency Maui permission to install 400 sandbags to prevent further property damage. Since then, the hotel has been granted repeated approvals to extend, replace and repair the emergency structure despite never conducting an environmental assessment or going through the stringent hurdles required to obtain permits to place a structure along environmentally sensitive coastlines.
State law also forbids the hardening of beaches.
DLNR once again extended the emergency approval in January 2022, prior to the new administration, allowing the hotel to replace the structure with new sandbags and large, 50-foot-long, water-filled “tiger dams” that are 2 feet in diameter and weigh 10,000 pounds each. The project cost, including removing the old barrier and installing the new one, was estimated at about $268,000, according to DLNR documents.
Tiare Lawrence, a longtime surfer and canoe paddler on Maui who has been an outspoken advocate for preserving the island’s beaches, said the highly visible structure is an eyesore that appears to be causing flanking erosion.
“It’s so ugly,” she said. “It’s huge. I was paddling in the ocean over the weekend and I was flabbergasted over what our beach looks like now.”
Rather than a temporary fix, she said the state has allowed it to become a long-term fixture.
“We have literally lost every beach from Napili all the way to the back end of Kaanapali. They’ve been basically washed away by seawalls, sandbags and rock revetments down the entire coastline,” Lawrence said. “We are trying to prevent that from happening.”
She said the state’s approval of the structure in front of the Hyatt Regency Maui is just an extension of that shoreline hardening that has contributed to the loss of 4 miles of beaches on Maui.
Relocating not feasible
DLNR justified its approval of the structure based on the notion that the hotel was working on the beach nourishment project as a longer-term solution and the erosion structure would soon be removed. The structure is set to expire in January.
Hyatt Regency Maui owner Host Hotels & Resorts, a real estate investment trust headquartered in Bethesda, Md., did not respond to a request for comment.
Sea Engineering, a local company specializing in coastal engineering and a consultant on the Hyatt project, also didn’t respond to a request for comment. The company is also the consultant for the Kaanapali Beach restoration project and completed the environmental impact statement for the state.
A DLNR spokesperson said the department would address the project’s expiration date “as needed when the time comes.”
The prospect of having to remove the structure that’s protecting resort property is just one of the major challenges Kaanapali is facing after the state pulled its partnership in the beach restoration project.
Hawaii could face up to 3 feet of sea level rise by 2060 under a worst-case scenario analysis. Under this scenario, large swaths of resort property would be underwater. By the end of this century, the sea level could rise by as much as 10.5 feet. A midrange scenario projects 1 to 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2060, which would flood oceanfront properties along Kaanapali Beach, according to a sea-level rise viewer developed for the state.
The shoreline along the beach is moving mauka at up to 2 feet per year, according to the beach nourishment project’s EIS. Under 2 feet of sea-level rise, erosion rates along Kaanapali could triple.
Without the beach restoration project, Hedani said the resort association is struggling to agree on a regional solution. He said that relocating hotels and condos mauka isn’t feasible. While there is room, he said it would be nearly impossible to attract the financing because of sea-level rise predictions.
“That is not going to fly,” Hedani said. “In the case of Kaanapali, the area we would retreat to is just as subject to erosion. So financing is going to be extremely impossible to get.”
He said removing property along the shoreline wasn’t on the table.