What's happening to beach access?
February 21, 2008Good fences make good neighbors.
That’s from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” It’s also apparently the philosophy of Puamana, a fortified development in Lahaina and home to two great surf spots. In 2000, gates went up surrounding Puamana. Ever since, they’ve come to symbolize the intensifying battle between developers and surfers over access to the surf.
“Their gate took the Hawai‘i out of my home,” a former Puamana resident told me. “All my kids surf and it seemed like the security guards were targeting surfers. I didn’t move there to live behind a gate. I would sit there in disbelief as the security guards treated the surfers like criminals. For what? Walking on the grass to get to the beach? The gate was for security purposes but I think it made the place more of a target.”
I wait outside the gate and just beyond the scope of a security camera. Finally, a Mustang pulls up, punches the secret code into the keypad, then continues into the neighborhood. This is how they treat tourists—instead of a lei or an “Aloha,” it’s “No Trespassing.”
I slip into Puamana just as the gates close. I feel like James Bond, but instead of a tuxedo and Walther PPK I carry a black rashguard and a pocket full of Sex Wax.
Almost immediately, the six-two thruster I’m carrying blows my cover. I sprint over the manicured lawn and past rows of townhouses that show no deviation from one another.
I see a massive clubhouse next to a pool deck. Sunburned honeymooners hold hands in chaise lounges while Lanai smiles in the background. Playful golden peaks meander towards the reef and explode in both directions; there’s not a drop of water out of place. There’s nothing out of place here, except myself. The 28 acres are lush and beautiful. I wish I were a resident instead of a trespasser.
Then a golf cart pulls up beside me. “Get off the grass,” the guard says. “You can’t walk through here.”
I know from experience that not all of the guards are authority junkies. Some are actually chill.
“Where are your golf clubs?” I ask the guard, trying for a lighthearted laugh. He throws me the same look I get from TSA agents in the airport.
Guess he’s one of the authority types.
“Get outta here!!” he yells.
I want to gesture with my middle finger, but throw him a shaka instead. It’s an ironic move considering the shaka supposedly originated from a security guard—a hired hand (minus three fingers)—named Hamana Kalili, who kept Oahu’s youth from jumping trains. Young surfers later turned the two-fingered idiosyncrasy into an emblem of island spirit.
But on Maui, given the current clashes between surfers and private property, I’m wondering if flipping the bird will soon take its place.
Supposedly, access to the ocean is a right in the State of Hawai‘i. In October 2006, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that, “The public has a right of access to and along all beaches and shorelines in the State situated below the ‘upper reaches of the wash of the waves.’”
But what if a surf spot sits off a pile of boulders and people can’t get to it from the shoreline? Unfortunately, the public does not have the right to use the land adjacent to the ocean, even if it overlooks a world-class wave.
Is this really protecting access? To find out, I asked Deborah Ward, spokesperson for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“Unfortunately, since we are a state agency, there is not much we can do,” Ward said. “Beach access is a growing problem in Hawai‘i and we are very concerned about it. However, it is the county’s responsibility to establish the right of way and concerned citizens are advised to contact their county officials.”
Ah, the county. Again, the 2006 Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruling: “Generally, the Counties have the primary authority and duty to develop and maintain public access to and along the shorelines.”
And herein lays the problem: Maui County is not fulfilling their duty to develop, maintain, and protect public access.
This problem is most pronounced in West Maui, where a lot of coastal land is privately owned. And since many of these privately owned lands have contributed to dangerously high erosion rates, beaches to access surf have become almost non-existent. This leaves surfers with three choices if they want to get to spots that lack shoreline access: jump off a boat, paddle a ridiculously long way from a poorly placed public access site or break the law and trespass.
“For as long as I can recall, we have had beach access as an issue on the council,” Councilwoman Jo Anne Johnson said. “One particular problem spot for surfers is the Puamana development. A public beach access, which I never have been able to pinpoint, was at Puamana and was an access that apparently was on an old map, but at some point was closed off to the public.”
Puamana PUD (Private Urban Development) is currently listed on the Maui County 2005 Shoreline Access Report’s inventory of public shoreline access points. The only problem is that surfers somehow have to pass through locked gates and harassment from security personnel before making it into the lineup.
Meanwhile, land development continues. From Honua Kai to Kapalua Bay, an abundance of new construction is threatening public beach access.
“Public beach access is the last thing on the developers’ minds,” Maui Planning Commissioner Joan Pawsat said. “At most, they will do the minimum as required by law. Unless somebody makes a stink about it, the developers will continue to deplete the remaining access sites.”
But even with multiple complaints, and citizens making a stink, beach access issues often go unresolved. Johnson blames the lack of enforcement on a lack of resources at the county Planning Department.
“It is also true that with our staffing in the enforcement section of Planning, we have too few people to address the numerous complaints that come in,” Johnson said. “They deal with multiple issues and are just not consistent in their follow-up or application of the law.”
County Planning Director Jeffrey Hunt didn’t return a call for comment.
Maui County’s shoreline access laws are as shifting as the grains of sand between tides. But Johnson hopes the County will bring some solid ground to the issue.
“We are supposed to address the issues of beach access during the upcoming discussion of our General Plan so I am hoping that at some point the Planning Department provides us with the information to know what is legally required and where our old access points were and what the proposed access or current access points are,” Johnson said.
My hope is that a few well-placed walkways lie in Maui’s future. It’s not a lot—certainly not a multi-million-dollar bypass road—but they would ease the heavy traffic seen today at Maui’s only accessible surf spots.
But I’m worried that it’s just a silly dream to think officials could work with private landowners to create better access to waves. Would they actually consider surfers as important as the wealthy or tourists? Will they see world-class waves as important as swimming pools?
My dreamy visions usually end during a dawn patrol surf check. After driving by enormous construction cranes and tangles of rebar, I pull up to a crowded spot reeking from stink-eye all around. It’s then that I think about how Maui’s surf spots have become symbolic of the island itself: gridlock growth with fragile infrastructure. Private excess has limited public access.
And it’s only going to get worse. MTW
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