POSTED: 17 August 2004 - 7:15pm

What is a Shoreline?

Hawaii's shrinking shorelines face rough waters

Our beaches are disappearing
by Robynne Boyd on 23 June 2004 in The Honolulu Weekly Archive

Legalese obfuscates the obvious. But we know one thing for sure - our beaches are disappearing.

‘It’s become a full-time job,” said Caren Diamond, strolling down Kaua‘i’s Camp Naue Beach in Hä‘ena, “but this shouldn’t be done by volunteers, it’s the state’s job.”  

Since 2000, Diamond, a North Shore resident for 24 years, has taken it upon herself to save one of Kaua‘i’s beloved shorelines. She regularly photographs the high wash of the waves on Hä‘ena’s coast. She uses them as evidence, when filing appeals with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, to try to enforce accurate shoreline certifications.

This is not “a correct shoreline certification,” stated Diamond, standing in front of an empty lot with pink, beribboned stakes sticking out of the ground, marking the proposed shoreline. Sand covers part of the lawn mauka of the stakes.

“If the waves don’t come up here, why is there sand all over,” scoffed Diamond. “If we don’t do something about shoreline certifications now, in the next three years there won’t be a beach.”

Stake your case
It’s understandable that creating a boundary on a shifting coast contains room for error. Yet, with the ocean rising annually, coastal development accelerating and the shorelines naturally retreating, this room for error has become a threat to Hawai‘i’s beaches and testimony of officials’ neglect.

“It’s very, very difficult to accurately determine a shoreline position,” said Zoe Norcross, Sea Grant Coastal Processes Extension Agent for Maui County. “There’s not exactly a clear line that is formed by the highest reach of the wave, after a few days or weeks it can be obscured.”

According to Hawaii Revised Statute 205-A (HRS 205-A), relating to Coastal Zone Management, the state’s definition for a shoreline is “the upper reaches of the wash of the waves, other than storm and seismic waves, at high tide during the season of the year in which the highest wash of the waves occurs, usually evidenced by the edge of vegetation growth, or the upper limit of debris left by the wash of the waves.” Although the definition implies a season in which certifications should be completed, shorelines are certified throughout the year.

To build along the coast, a property owner must obtain a shoreline certification. The first person along the totem pole of procedure is a registered surveyor. Hired by the landowner, the surveyor visits the property, photographs the area, stakes the suggested shoreline and prepares a map representing the lot and its seaward boundary.

“We follow Hawai‘i Administrative Rules, which contain the definition of what the shoreline is,” said independent surveyor Ron Wagner. “We get a general feel of the property, and to be frank, it is a judgment call.”

The surveyor’s photographs and map are sent to the state surveyor’s office in Honolulu. If the state surveyor does not approve the application, a sight inspection is made—this rarely happens.
“I [was] the checks and balances,” said recently retired State Surveyor Randy Hashimoto. “If I [made] a mistake we [would] end up in court.” According to Diamond, over the last 9 years, Hashimoto approved 1,800 shorelines without seeking expert help.

The state surveyor’s recommendation is sent to the DLNR’s Division of Land Management, which makes its own determination of shoreline. If approved, it is published in the OEQC Bulletin and a 20-day appeal period begins. Finally, the shoreline certification is used to delineate a shoreline setback, the safe zone that protects the private landowners and beach resources from erosion and other coastal hazards.

Although shoreline certification regulations and processes appear simple, albeit lengthy, concerns exist over discrepancies between the definition for a shoreline in HRS205-A (the State law) and Hawai‘i Administrative Rules.

While state law recognizes the waves’ high-level mark, “In the administrative rules, a shore line is identified by the vegetation line, and if there is not a vegetation line then the debris,” said Rep. Hermina Morita. “This gives a preference to the vegetation line.”

According to Morita, in the last 10 years or so, coastal property owners have been planting the endemic salt-resistant shrub naupaka along the edge of the beach bordering their property, prior to certification. Once planted and irrigated, naupaka spreads seaward. If a shoreline is then certified according to Hawai‘i Administrative Rules, the beach is diminished and the homeowner can build closer to the ocean.

“There’s not a discrepancy,” said Sam Lemmo, administrator of the DLNR’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. He allows that there are small word differences, “ but not any that are a significant issue.”

“The main policy is there,” agreed Morita. “The problem is in interpretation of the law.”

In 2004, Morita introduced House Bill 1556 to clarify the definition of a shoreline as, “the uppermost reach of the wash of the waves or debris line—whichever is furthest mauka or inland; provided that the vegetation is not influenced or modified by human intervention.” The bill stalled.

Yet according to Chip Fletcher, Professor and Chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Hawai‘i, the problem lies not in the legislation but with the rule makers.

“The DLNR could improve and strengthen their rules,” said Fletcher. “With global sea level on the rise and erosion a statewide problem, there should be no certifications seaward of existing certifications. And the waves should be monitored.” (The DLNR did not respond to the Weekly’s invitation to address the issue.) Fletcher stressed that private surveyors have a professional obligation to visit beaches at high tide when the large swell is running to document the high-wave mark.

The impact zone
According to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site, the islands’ typical erosion rate ranges from 6 to 12 inches a year. Along many shores the rate is higher. Statewide, setbacks are 40 feet, which puts homes, roadways and businesses in high-erosion areas in jeopardy just a few decades after being built.

Owners build seawalls to protect their lands, usually causing the demise of the public beach that is held in trust by the state. Today, the state upholds its fiduciary responsibility and rarely grants permits for seawalls. However, the counties can also award permits, and on O‘ahu, this happens frequently.
“There needs to be an increased understanding of coastal hazards and erosion by decision makers at all levels, state and county especially,” said Norcross, who has completed beach replenishment projects across the state. “This might lead to improved regulations governing shoreline management.”
Normally, during high surf, large waves sweep beach sand out to sea, depositing it on the ocean floor. This flattens the beach and raises the seabed. Waves then break further offshore, decreasing the possibility of shoreline erosion.

“When the swell has passed, the fair-weather waves carry sand back on beach and wind blows it back to the dune,” said Fletcher (see diagram on page 4). “If you put dirt, overvegetate or take away sand from the dunes it removes the sand reservoir for the beach, which erodes, eating into the abutting land.”
As dunes disappear, the ocean encroaches on coastal properties, prompting owners to apply for those seawall permits.

Building seawalls or revetments is known as “hardening” the shoreline, while planting vegetation is known as “soft hardening.” Both prevent the natural movement of sand. They may stop erosion of the property owners’ lands but refocus the erosion onto the beach. On Maui, a
hardened beach is called a “dying beach.”

“Traditionally we always sat there,” said Diamond, pointing towards a dune shaded by ironwoods. The spot is engulfed by private property and naupaka. Most of the ironwoods that once shaded Kaua‘i’s north coast have been cut down and naupaka planted in its place. Diamond walks to the next parcel of land, avoiding rocky coral heads near the property line, tossed there by winter waves. “All lands seaward of the shoreline belongs to public trust,” stressed Diamond. “That is what has been given away” through improper certification.

“The state surveyor, should be looking out for public interest,” said Morita. “The second person that should be looking over the state surveyor’s shoulder is the chair of DLNR,” she continued. “Even the planning department—they should be vigilant too, and they should be questioning suspect surveyors. It’s the public who loses the most.”

Lemmo, of the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, agrees with Morita.
“The long-term effect [of seaward shorelines] can be squeezing the public out of coastal areas.”

On the horizon
Maui is the state’s maverick of coastal management. The island created new setback laws in 2003 based on a $300,000, three-year historical erosion analysis. UH researchers, led by Fletcher, under contract from Maui County, created maps of coastal erosion hazards along Maui’s shoreline. By using aerial photos and topographic sheets reaching to the pre–World War II era, the researchers calculated annual erosion rates for each beach. Maui County multiplied the annual erosion rate by 50 (estimated lifespan of a house before remodeling) and added a 20-foot buffer zone. The result: On Maui, the greater the erosion hazard, the bigger the setback, decreasing the future need for seawalls. Planners describe the approach as a more rational basis for managing coastal development than the state law’s present one-size-fits-all 40 feet setback. Some neighbor islands are pursuing Maui’s lead.

“We’re looking for some scientific basis to deviate from what the state has prescribed,” said Ian Costa, director of the County of Kauai County Planning Department. “Any number the state has prescribed, in my mind, without a study is an arbitrary number.”

To follow Maui’s example, Kaua‘i’s Planning Department requested $300,000 in their 2005 budget for the annual erosion studies. The request was not approved. Instead, said Costa, $100,000 dollars from Kaua‘i’s general fund and $50,000 dollars from the Coastal Zone Management Program have been “assured” as of July 1 for the launch of Kaua‘i’s shoreline erosion analysis.

Due to Costa’s concern that Kaua‘i’s County Council may not offer more financial assistance, Kaua‘i’s Planning Department is looking for cheaper alternatives.

“We are trying to establish our scope of that project through input from private consultants and the Army corps to decide the most prudent way to go about this for Kaua‘i,” said Costa. “This data will be used in creating new setback laws.”

O‘ahu “is in the process of undertaking coastal erosion studies,” said Kathy Sokugawa, acting deputy director of the O‘ahu Planning Department. “It is taking us a lot longer to get the contract approved than anticipated.”

Two years ago, the O‘ahu City Council appropriated $380,000 for the study, said Sokugawa, but it requires additional funding from federal and state entities. Sokugawa said the contract would be approved sometime in the next month or two by the City Council.

Fletcher suggested that O‘ahu and Kaua‘i team up so that the plane used to take aerial photos would only have to make one trip.

“We could save so much money if O‘ahu and Kaua‘i released funds at the same time,” said Fletcher. Costa said Kaua‘i has contacted the Honolulu Planning Department and is trying to coordinate plans, but also said a lot of it depends on timing.  

Non-bureaucratic steps are also being taken to turn the tide of shoreline erosion. Dolan Eversole of UH Seagrant-, in conjunction with the DLNR is working on educational pamphlets concerning coastal property hazards. The first pamphlet describes erosion management guidelines intended for homeowners experiencing coastal erosion, the second is a guide to purchasing coastal property in Hawai‘i. They will be published later this summer.

“Educating the public is the first step in mitigating coastal erosion,” said Eversole. “More public support and more proactive coastal planning will hopefully lead to better coastal management through state and county.”

As Kaua‘i and O‘ahu embark upon their shoreline erosion studies, the potential to save our shoreline is here. However, sustainable coastal management cannot be obtained without the cooperation of coastal landowners, surveyors and state and county officials.

“As a state, county by county and nation, we need to define a strategic retreat from shoreline,” said Fletcher. “Everyone says this is ridiculous, but it must be done if we want beaches for our grandchildren.”




Urgent! Beach Access Threatened

9 May 2004 - 4:45pm

"Morning on the Beach" by Mark Wilson Meunier

Attend the May 11 Planning Commission hearing at 10am

Please let the Planning Commission know that access along our shorelines must be protected. Last week the Commissioners made a decision that would allow a house (a vacation rental) to be built so close to the ocean at Wainiha, with a mere 45 foot setback, that it would block lateral beach access during high tides much of the year. It would be followed by a succession of houses slated for development along this once open-space shoreline making safe year round lateral access impossible - cutting off one end of the beach from the other - especially during the winter months.

North shore environmentalist Caren Diamond has filed a motion for the Planning Commission to reconsider its decision regarding the setback for this property in her valiant on-going efforts to protect the shoreline. Let's support her by informing the Planning Commissioners that lateral beach access must be their highest priority in making decisions regarding ocean setback distances for development. It is imperative for each one of us to speak out if we are to be provided safe passage along our shorelines.

PLEASE COME to the Planning Commission hearing at Lihue Civic Center, Moikkeha Bldg. Rm 2A-2B at 4444 Rice Street this Tuesday morning at 10 am (the first item on the agenda) to see Caren Diamond's power point presentation. She'll be showing startling photos proving that waves regularly reach beyond the 45 foot setback the Commissioners have permitted for this property. The Planning Department said that if enough people attend the hearing wishing to give oral testimony they would probably allow them to do so at that time or at least take their written comments.

PLEASE WRITE! If you are unable to attend the hearing please FAX your comments to the Planning Department at 241-6699 before Tuesday, May 11.

Here are some talking points (to be revised and the order changed with your own wording):


To the Planning Commisssion,

Re: Motion for Reconsideration for Carl Stephens Lot 2 TMK589041

• The 45 foot setback citing for the house on Lot 2 permitted by the Planning Commission in its decision on May 4th was based on a faulty shoreline certification the DLNR had done. (This was determined from naupaka the property owners induced to grow on the beach fronting their lot. The Commissioners should have taken that into their decision and have substantially increased the set back accordingly.)

• The setback decision does not take into consideration high winter surges which would put the public at risk when using the beach fronting the property.

• Allowing structures to be built within minimal distances from the ocean defeats the purpose of Hawaii Revised Statues 205A protecting safe public access along state beaches.

I support Caren Diamond's Motion for Consideration to assure safe lateral beach access throughout the year.

Sincerely, xxx


If you already sent in comments when we asked for input on this issue for the March 9th Planning Department meeting, could you please re-send your comments and add a couple of the points mentioned in this letter?



Bill for Shoreline Definition stalled

29 April 2004 - 6:15pm

An important bill to protect Hawaii’s beaches and shorelines from encroaching development is stalled at the legislature. Please take a moment and send a quick email or make two phone calls to help get this bill passed.
SB 1556 SD2 HD2 helps fix the process by which Hawaii’s shorelines are identified and certified when determining the setback for coastal developments. We are urging the legislature to pass the House draft of the bill, as it:
1) clarifies that the shoreline is at the highest wash of waves during the season when the highest wave wash occurs or the vegetation line (whichever is further mauka),
2) increases public notification of shoreline certifications, and
3) prohibits manipulation of the vegetation line.
The House and Senate must meet in conference committee to change the effective date of the bill and to agree to the House changes. Unfortunately, Senate President Bunda has yet to assign conference committee members to the bill—a sign that the Senate is not interested in passing it. The bill must be amended and passed out of the conference committee by THURSDAY NIGHT (April 29th).
Please contact President Bunda and Water and Land Chair Lorraine Inouye TODAY and simply ask them to pass the House version of SB 1556 with an appropriate start date (July 1, 2004). Tell them you strongly support fixing the shoreline certification process to prevent inappropriate development on our beaches and coastline.
1) Send an email to Senate President Bunda and Senator Inouye by clicking here.
2) Call President Bunda at 586-6090 AND Senator Lorraine Inouye at 586-7335. Calls can be made from the neighbor islands by dialing the following local island number and then the last 5 DIGITS of the Senator’s number. From Maui: 984-2400, Big Island: 974-4000, Kauai: 274-3141



Just what is the edge of beachfront property?

11 April 2004 - 10:45pm

Naupaka growing on Hawaiian beachfront

Factual misinformation such as that found in Friday’s editorial titled, “Beachfront encroachment” (sic), does a great disservice to the community and begs correction.  On Thursday the County Council received excellent presentation from UH professor, Dr. Chip Fletcher, and Maui Sea Grant agent, Zoe Norcross, on the topic of coastal erosion, mapping shoreline change and beach maintenance.  When experts like these come to us with such important insight citizens rely on our newspaper to help disseminate the information.  The editorial failed in this regard.  

Our coastal management issues are so complex that a definition of what the shoreline is might be helpful.  According to HRS Sect. 205 A-1, the shoreline certification is to be delineated by “the upper reaches of the wash of the waves…at high tide during the season of the year in which the highest wash of the waves occurs, usually evidenced by the edge of the vegetation growth or the upper limit of the debris left by the wash of the waves.”

The county determines building setbacks measured from the certified shoreline, but is most certainly not “the governing body that issues what’s known as shoreline certifications.”  Before applying for a building permit, beachfront owners hire a private surveyor to delineate the shoreline.  This survey is submitted to the state surveyor in the office of General Accounting Services who then recommends this line or a line determined by himself to the Board of Land and Natural Resources.  In a review process, the BLNR then either certifies the shoreline or denies it.  This certification is not “set for good,” but is good for one year only, during which time it is assumed the homeowner will begin his building project, the shoreline certification having determined the building setbacks. Kauai County setbacks usually range from twenty to forty feet from the certified shoreline, which does not allow for sand movement and coastal processes.

Throughout the editorial the writer uses “alleged…allegations…possibility” to describe the documented practice by more and more beachfront owners to plant and irrigate beach land makai of the high wash of the waves resulting in the beachfront encroachment of the subject editorial.  When shoreline certification makes use of vegetation line and the survey makes no distinction between artificially planted and natural vegetation, these plantings can usurp 15-50 feet of public beachfront.  The waves lap the naupaka and there is often little room to walk on the sand at low tide.  At high tide the beach can become dangerous.

Dr. Fletcher several times made mention of the decision in a Kauai shoreline appeal where planted vegetation was allowed to determine the shoreline.  The implications statewide are far reaching and long term, and for the editorial writer to diminish the impact with such inaccurate terms as “alleged limitations on beach use”, “allegations that property owners are purposely growing naupaka” and “possibility” of abuse, misleads the public.  Irrigated plantings are spearheading the assault on beach access and citizens deserve to be factually informed. 

The editorial statement that “beach sands shift a great deal at least a few times a decade” is a gross understatement and belies the intelligence of anyone who has observed a favorite beach. The ocean is a powerful force and can move huge amounts of sand in a matter of days, if not hours.  The “argument that ground covers are needed to stabilize sand” is true where dunes are formed, as Dr. Fletcher illustrated, but shoreline sand is not stationary and does not stay in one location for any length of time.  In fact one of the main intents of Dr. Fletcher’s talk was to illustrate the great shifting nature of beaches and the importance of allowing for sand migrations with proper setbacks based on erosion rates for every beach.  Real change should be made using accepted scientific methodology and sound data gathering, analysis and study. 

Also, the editorial writer states that these sorts of boundary disputes are nothing new, the implication being that we shouldn’t rile ourselves too much over them.  But isn’t it true that there was no such thing as private ownership of land in historical Hawaii?
Finally the ghost writer warns darkly that there could be an ugly conflict brewing here and advises balanced debate “as the council weights the issue” (sic).  There may well be conflicting sides of this issue, as there were on Maui during  efforts there to determine reasonable and scientific building setbacks.  Perhaps conflict is inevitable, but shoreline delineation and access are critical for the preservation of our beaches for all to enjoy as our state constitution intends.  The public needs to be educated on this issue in order to bequeath to future generations the beach beauty that graces our times.  The Garden Island News would do well to further this enlightenment with proper fact checks and accurate information.


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