Last month, as angry swells carved steep scarps into the dunes on O‘ahu’s North Shore, threatening homes and other structures, on the Big Island, another, slower wearing away of the coast was prompting owners of a cliffside home in the northern part of Hilo town to take drastic measures to save their house.
Their residence, at 78 Kahoa Street, had been featured on local television news reports in 2016. A lifeguard at Honoli‘i had alerted news media to the fact that parts of the house were shedding off and falling down the 80-foot-high cliff face to the ocean and on September 16, Hawai‘i News Now reported on the problem, noting also that it had reached out to county and state agencies and found none willing to accept responsibility for addressing the problem.
The report apparently prompted the Hawai‘i County Department of Public Works to take action and conduct an inspection of the home. On September 20, DPW building chief David Yamamoto issued a notice of violation to the homeowners, Joel and Karen Thompson. “The structure is hazardous and unsafe because it has partially collapsed and may continue to collapse and/ or loosened parts of the structure may fall off of the embankment and injure you and/or others and/or damage property,” Yamamoto wrote. He instructed them to “immediately cease the use of the master bedroom, master bathroom, covered patio, dining room, closet and bathroom” on the makai side of the house. In addition, they were to “obtain a demolition permit … within two business days of the receipt date of this notice” and complete demolition of the unsafe structure within 90 days of the notice.
Photos accompanying the letter showed a patio that had partly collapsed down the cliff face, rooms whose walls were pulling away from the rest of the house, and a dizzying view from the patio down the cliff face, where parts of the patio were resting on the rocks below.
The Thompsons were apparently unaware that their house had been in the news, but when the DPW inspectors came and they got the notice of violation, it could not have come as a surprise. Seven years earlier, in 2009, they had worked with an engineering firm in an effort to stabilize their house. The plan called for installing reinforced concrete piles that would extend 50 feet down the cliff face “until contact with the competent blue rock.” The piles themselves would be anchored to the cliff face by “grout injection rock anchors,” extending 20 to 30 feet into the hillside.
Even earlier, previous owners had, in 1993, built a rock wall at the cliff base, along the shore, in the apparent hope that it might prevent waves from undercutting the face of the scarp. That was done without permits, and the county forced the then-owners to remove the wall. A few years later, the same owners had attempted to stabilize the cliff face by spraying it with shotcrete or gunite.
In connection with the Thompsons’ Special Management Area application in 2009, their engineer, Paul Weber of Meta Engineering, stated that, “Recently, a chunk of the bank broke loose – shotcrete and all. This has exposed the house to a danger of collapse, and the rest of the face protected by shotcrete is at risk.”
In a letter signed by then-planning director B.J. Leithead-Todd, the Planning Department stated that the proposed work raised “a number of great concerns.” “There is also very little information provided in the application for us to make an informed decision as to the impacts of the project and its implication on the health and safety of the dwelling’s residents, the long-term stability or safety of the dwelling itself, the long-term stability of the pali (cliff) below the dwelling, or what potential impacts all of these may have on the coastal resources,” she wrote.
Planning Commission rules as well as Hawai‘i’s land use law, Chapter 205A, require the county to “reduce hazards to life and property from tsunami, storm waves, stream flooding, erosion, subsidence, and pollution” and to “control development in areas subject to storm wave, tsunami, flood, erosion, hurricane, wind, subsidence, and point- and nonpoint source pollution hazards,” she pointed out.
“Bluff erosion is very difficult to control and may undermine structures built near the bluff edge…. [T]here may be few options in the construction stage that would mitigate the hazard once structures are placed too close to an eroding bluff,” Leithead-Todd wrote, quoting Dennis Hwang’s Hawai‘i Coastal Hazard Mitigation Guidebook.
She pointed out the department’s “serious concerns” over the project: “This cliff has been eroding for some time, causing the house to rest precariously over the pali. Recent erosion of the pali, including the sections that were supposed to have been reinforced structurally, have resulted in the loss of several feet of cliff. We have not been provided with information regarding the geology of the cliff, what its rate of erosion is, how the wave action below impacts the integrity of the pali, how the cliff geology will act under the engineered solutions (meaning, will the pali break off again under the new stress of drilling and anchoring into it), etc. … We would not want to approve a solution that is not safe.”
Leithead-Todd also said that she wanted to see comments from the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
While the Thompsons desired to have the requirement for a certified shoreline survey waived, Leithead-Todd rejected this. “It is clear that the work being proposed is at a minimum within the shoreline setback area,” she stated. “Thus the requirement for a certified shoreline survey is not waived and must be included” in the complete application.
Finally, since the cost estimate — $250,000 — exceeded what at the time was the maximum allowed for a minor SMA permit, a SMA Major Use Permit and shoreline setback variance would have been required.
The Thompsons replied, stating that the cliff failure beneath their house was the result of a “100-year storm.” “This erosion wasn’t due to the failure of the shotcrete to protect the surface of the cliff face, but rather to the saturation of the entire pali due to hours of intense rain. The pali literally blew out from the inside, a phenomenon we observed at the time at two other spots along our street.”
This concerned them, they wrote, but “seemed at the time to pose no imminent threat to the safety of our home or the shore below it. And it was, after all, due to an alleged ‘100-year storm.’ It appears now, however, that this erosion exposed the underpinnings of the shotcrete and led to corrosion of the underlying structure. This year … large chunks of the shotcrete began to break off and fall to the shore below.” This, they said, was what prompted them to seek out an engineering firm and move forward with the proposed project.
To further assuage the county, and in an effort to qualify for an SMA minor permit, the Thompsons were now proposing only the vertical piles to anchor the house to bedrock and not the grout injection ribs extending horizontally into the cliff.
On December 22, 2009, Leithead-Todd rejected the proposed changes and once more insisted that the Thompsons obtain an SMA major use permit for the work. “[T]he proposal to only anchor the house without stabilizing the bank would pose a risk of hazard to life and property,” she wrote. “We find that the proposal may also have a significant adverse impact on the SMA and that the proposal could not be considered a minor structure or activity. For all of these reasons, you will need to submit both a SMA Major Use Permit Application
and a Shoreline Setback Variance Application for the proposed project. In addition, the proposed project must include both phases of stabilization in order to reduce the risk to life and property.”
There is nothing further in the file after this. The Thompsons appear to have dropped the idea of working on their house or stabilizing the cliff face.
A Slow-Walking Cliff
The Thompsons may have backed off their proposal, but the erosion of the cliff face continued. In 2013, a kayaker happened to notice what seemed to him to be fresh evidence of another landslide. He emailed a photo — showing red, exposed earth from the house down to the water, with nary a blade of grass to be seen — to a friend who worked at the Department of Public Works.
“There’s a house at Honoli‘i that’s very close to the edge of the pali,” he wrote in his email to Noelani Whittington, the information and education specialist at the DPW. “I was out paddling yesterday and noticed a recent landslide bringing the house even closer to going over. Notice the concrete rubble at the base of the pali. It used to be gunite that the owner had sprayed on the pali to prevent erosion — it worked for a while. I loathe to be a squealer, but it does look a little scary for the homeowner. Thought I’d better tell somebody.”
Whittington forwarded the email and accompanying photo to the Planning Department, along with the query, “Does Planning inspect this type of erosion problem?”
Apparently not. Nothing further is in the Planning Department file until October 12, 2016, when the Thompsons’ agent submitted a Special Management Area Use Permit assessment application.
A Two-Stage Process
It took more than a year for the Planning Department to process the permit application, with questions over just how the work would be done and how much it would cost.
Jo-Anna Herkes of SSFM International was leading the permitting effort, working closely with general contractor Jas. A. Glover, Ltd. In correspondence with the Planning Department, she indicated the work would be done in two phases. The first would be to clean up debris at the bottom of the cliff face, at a cost of $70,000. Second would be to demolish the unsafe portions of the house, with a total cost of $150,000.
On September 26, in a letter signed by staffer Jeff Darrow for planning director Michael Yee, Herkes was notified the department had granted a minor SMA permit for the proposed work. Because no “development” was involved, it qualified for a minor permit, and because the work was a “minor activity” under departmental rules, no shoreline survey would be required, either.
But the site plan accompanying the letter, showing the areas slated for demolition, does not include several of the rooms that had been called out in the Department of Public Works’ notice of violation issued in 2016. Specifically, the master bedroom and bath, the dining room, and the closet and bathroom makai of the carport, were not included in the proposed “work area/limits of demolition.” The only area of overlap between the two site plans was the lanai.
Bethany Morrison, the planner handling the permit, was asked about the discrepancy. “My recollection was that there was some discrepancy about the floor plan used in the [notice of violation] and the most current configuration of the building. However, since the requirement for the partial demolition was from DPW we would defer to them about how much demolition of the structure is required,” she replied.
The Department of Public Works issued a permit for the demolition on October 9, describing the authorized work as “partial demolition of existing dwelling to rectify DPW complaint.” The cost of the work was pegged at $70,000, which varies from the cost stated in the Planning Department’s SMA permit. Morrison explained this discrepancy as the result of the DPW permit not including the clean-up work.
The December 3 edition of the Hawai‘i Tribune-Herald carried a notice that the road fronting 78 Kahoa Street would be closed on weekdays to allow for the demolition work, beginning as early as that date and continuing through December 29.
By mid-month, no work was in evidence. On December 22, a cherry-picker had been placed on the driveway.