Two years later, the Legislature overrode Gov. Linda Lingle’s veto of a bill to establish a climate change task force. “The problem was it was never funded by the administration at the time,” says Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning. “It just ceased to exist.” Still, growing out of that impetus was a partnership between the state’s working group on revising the Ocean Resources Management Plan and the University of Hawai`i’s Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy. That led to the preparation and publication of a November 2009 report, “A Framework for Climate Adaptation in Hawai`i,” which underpins much of the updated Ocean Resources Management Plan.
In 2010, the Legislature again paid its respects to the threat of climate change in passing Act 73, relating to food security. “Now is the time for bold action to squarely address Hawai`i’s energy and food requirements and plan for and address the inevitable effects of climate change,” the law states in its “Findings” section.
Last year, the Legislature amended the law setting out planning guidelines for the state, Chapter 225. The amendment makes adapting to climate change one of the top priorities that is to guide state and county governments as they develop plans and allocate resources. “The priority guidelines will serve as a guiding policy for adapting to the expected impacts of climate change through the existing implementation provisions of the Hawai`i State Planning Act, which include guiding all major state and county activities, programs, budgetary, land use, and other decision making processes, and county general plans and development plans,” the act states.
Meanwhile, in the SMA
The state Coastal Zone Management Act as well as Article VIII of the state Constitution give to the counties the right to regulate development in the Special Management Area, a narrow belt that runs inland from the shoreline to, generally, the nearest major road.
Both Maui and Kaua`i counties have in recent years built into their SMA regulatory systems an approach that considers coastal erosion. In Kaua`i, setbacks for building in the SMA are determined using an annual average shoreline erosion rate multiplied by 70 years, plus a 40-foot buffer on top of that. For buildings greater than 5,000 square feet, the multiplier is 100 years, since larger buildings will generally have a longer useful life, the county reasoned.
In Maui, setbacks are calculated by multiplying the average annual erosion rate by 50 and adding a buffer of 25 feet.
Neither O`ahu nor Hawai`i county has adopted a similar approach. Hawai`i County has a standard minimum setback of 40 feet. O`ahu setbacks are generally 40 feet, although for smaller lots they can be as little as 25 feet. New subdivisions on O`ahu are required to impose setbacks of 60 feet, however.
Although erosion-based setbacks are an improvement over fixed ones, they, too, have their limits. As Souki says, “they don’t take into account sea level rise” and are based instead only on historical records. Michael Dahilig, director of the Kaua`i County Planning Department, acknowledges that limitation. “A lot of information is coming in now about melting glaciers and ice fields,” he said – information that is not apparent in historical data.
Souki told Environment Hawai`i that the Abercrombie administration is not planning to introduce legislation next year to address climate change. “There’s no need,” he said. “We haven’t done all we can do with what we already have.”
But the Hawai`i Coastal Geology Group, a part of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawai`i, has laid out a seven-step plan for action that will require a regulatory framework much more ambitious than what is now on the books.
Step 1 involves acknowledging sea level rise (SLR). “This can be achieved by writing SLR into our laws, public awareness efforts, and planning activities,” the group says on its web page describing the impacts of sea level rise in Hawai`i. Notwithstanding the changes to the state planning act approved last year, “currently, you are not required to consider the future threat of SLR in where or how you build (or redevelop existing structures).”
The second step is to require potentially vulnerable structures to incorporate elements to mitigate the negative impacts of SLR. “By shifting the planning process to a risk-based footing, guidelines could be implemented to improve the safety of your house and reduce negative impacts on the environment,” the recommendations state. “Planning is already on a risk-based footing with regard to tsunami and storm surge inundation, and there is a growing effort to plan for the risk of coastal erosion. But there are no planning requirements in Hawai`i with regard to SLR.” The 2012 amendments to the State Planning Act fall short of requiring action. Rather, they merely “encourage planning and management of the natural and built environments that effectively integrate climate change policy” and call on agencies to “promote sector resilience in areas such as water, roads, airports, and public health, by encouraging the identification of climate change threats, assessment of potential consequences, and evaluation of adaptation options.”
Chip Fletcher, head of the Coastal Geology Group and associate dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, said in a phone interview that to date, incorporation of climate change in planning documents has not occurred on any meaningful scale. “So far, we haven’t really seen any actual engineering or construction projects,” he said. “As far as I know, no activities that are going for permits have been required to go back and address adaptation issues.”
Step 3 is a requirement that all development plans include an assessment of risks associated with sea level rise – something, the recommendations say, that “will not be particularly challenging,” given all the tools that already exist to accomplish this.
The next step involves redefining the special management area in light of SLR impacts. “Given the rising water table and drainage problems related to sea level rise,” the group says, “a simple distance from the shoreline is no longer adequate” to define the zone.
Step 5 is to designate “no-build” and “no-rebuild” zones, which “would move the coastal community toward improved resiliency (the ability to quickly recover from catastrophic events).” The group acknowledges that step involves formidable challenges – including the likely charge of unconstitutional taking by affected landowners. “The most straightforward approach is to purchase the land, or purchase restrictions on how the land is developed,” the recommendations state. “That is, pay the landowner to not develop.” In this connection, the group notes that the university’s Sea Grant program has already published a study, “Climate Change and Regulatory Takings in Coastal Hawai`i,” that looks at this very problem. (The study, written by Douglas Codiga, Dennis Hwang, and Chris Delaunay, is available online.)
Fletcher, who was the author of the recommendations, said that in considering areas for purchase, “you have to apply a triage approach. Places that are already locked up in seawalls or which are extremely expensive – don’t bother with them. I would look at healthy beaches with a healthy sediment budget that are not otherwise impacted. Maybe where there are homeowners who have no heirs. You could help them by buying a conservation easement and then they leave their property to the state. Also, a number of coastal homes are not owner-occupied or may be used as illegal vacation rentals. We could contact these owners and work out a deal – let them continue to operate on the condition they sell it to us at less than market value, for instance.”
In that same vein, the group proposes new permitting tools in Step 6. One of the most innovative allows development to occur so long as the owner exercises a deed covenant restricting or forbidding the construction of seawalls to protect it in the event of sea level rise and also preventing redevelopment or rebuilding of damaged structures.
The last step – Step 7 – involves “climate-proofing” communities. “Allowing the continued development of accreted lands, such as still occurs on some of the last healthy beaches in Hawai`i, makes no sense. In an era of accelerated sea level rise, this has got to end,” the recommendations state.
Climate proofing involves some simple actions – such as raising the elevation of roadbeds when they are due for routine maintenance; adding one-way valves to culverts (such as those installed at Mapunapuna) to protect developed lands and valuable coastal wetlands; re-engineering ports, and anticipating and addressing impacts on infrastructure. A planning standard should be adopted to set targets for construction. As an example, the recommendations refer to a table of best- and worse-case scenarios for sea level rise that anticipates a worst-case rise of three feet by as early 2070 (with 2090 being the latest year in which a rise of that level would be seen).