Editorial: The New Keaukaha Seawall Must Come Down And the Parks Director Should Resign

posted in: May 2016 | 0

Rarely are the state’s laws to protect natural resources and coastal areas so flagrantly violated as they have been in the case of the new seawall built in the Keaukaha area of Hilo.

One would think that the builder, celebrated architect Robert Iopa, would have known better. And if he didn’t, then surely Clayton Honma, Hawai`i county parks director, would have set him straight.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Honma now claims a 1927 executive order turning over the Leleiwi shoreline area to the county for management as a park grants him absolute authority to ignore Conservation District and Special Management Area (SMA) protections.

Of course, Honma knows better. The Department of Parks and Recreation has over the years submitted numerous applications for SMA permits to the Planning Department, for everything from major construction projects to ones as minor as the placement of standards for rescue tubes at beach parks.

Although the Planning Department seems to have been out of the loop as far as seawall construction is concerned, it is not off the hook, either. It was a mistake for the department to let Iopa use a 1993 certified shoreline, valid for just 365 days, to calculate the shoreline setback area. Yes, it was within the planning director’s discretion to do so, but it was still wrong, as the planning director now seems to have acknowledged in his recent insistence on Iopa providing such a survey forthwith.

The Violations

Chapter 205A, Hawai`i Revised Statutes, governs development in coastal areas. Under that law, the planning departments of the four counties are given authority to regulate development inland of the shoreline, and they receive training and state and federal funds to help them carry out this responsibility. Neither the Hawai`i County Department of Parks and Recreation nor any other county agency has legal authority to circumvent this.

Whether the old wall could be rebuilt and under whose authority are questions that could have been answered only by a certified shoreline survey. If it turned out that the remains of the pre-existing wall were makai of the certified shoreline (as, in fact, portions of it were in 1993), then jurisdiction would have fallen to the Department of Land and Natural Resources, whose Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands has generally taken a dim view of proposals to rebuild seawalls. The few exceptions it does consider are when a landowner’s house or other vital structure is at risk – which certainly was not the case here: Iopa has no structure at all on his property, aside from the low dry-stack wall.

The county Planning Department is well aware of the controversies that attend seawall construction, and probably for this reason informed Iopa last January that he would be required to obtain a certified shoreline survey if he wished to proceed with construction of the seawall. In granting him a permit for other improvements however, it opened the door to his bringing in tons of fill material that has leveled out a section of the coast that used to be characterized by smooth rocks and boulders, hummocky grasses, and cool, quiet pools – notwithstanding the permit condition that the activity proposed in the shoreline setback area “not alter the existing grade of the shoreline setback area” and not “affect beach processes or artificially fix the shoreline.”

Then there are the state Conservation District rules. The county park land fronting Iopa’s parcel lies within the Conservation District, where almost all work requires a Conservation District Use Permit, issued by the DLNR’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. Tree-cutting, wall-building, grading, and filling – among other things – all need advance approval from the OCCL and, in the case of seawalls, from the Board of Land and Natural Resources as well.

Finally, in granting the Friends of the Park agreement to Iopa, Honma seems to have violated his department’s own Rule 12, governing such agreements. That rule anticipates that the agreements will be with community groups or organizations, not individuals. Iopa’s recent effort to transfer the agreement to a freshly minted non-profit, of which he is chair and apparently sole member, seems to be a belated attempt to address this shortcoming.

Troubling Signs

It is heartening that the Planning Department has finally issued a stop-work order to Iopa, although by the time it got around to that, most of the damage had been done.

But just how the problems Iopa and Honma have created will be resolved remains to be determined. If the wall is allowed to stay and Iopa is rewarded with an unimpeded view from his new house to the ocean across a landscaped, tree-free lawn, then members of the public will have every right to believe Hawai`i County has two sets of rules: one for friends of the administration, and another for everyone else. Confidence in the administration of Iopa’s high-school chum, Mayor Kenoi, which many thought had reached rock bottom following his misuse of his government charge card, will sink to depths never before recorded.

The only solution – to restore faith in government by law and to bolster the public’s flagging confidence in the county’s executive departments – is to remove the wall. No after-the-fact approvals. No risible claims of restored fish pond walls. No lame assertions of protecting public safety. No spurious non-profits.

The state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands should require Iopa to dismantle the new construction, haul out the fill, and restore, as much as possible, the pre-existing natural conditions. The Board of Land and Natural Resources should then impose sanctions against not only Iopa, but the Parks Department as well. Meanwhile, the state’s Office of Coastal Zone Management should give a refresher course to the county Planning Department on the workings of the CZM law. To require a certified shoreline only after the need for one becomes abundantly clear undermines the legal processes of shoreline development anticipated in that statute.

Last but by no means least, the actions of Honma must be addressed. He has abused the public trust, has violated laws, and has by his actions in this case demonstrated he is unworthy to serve as head of an executive agency of the County of Hawai`i. He should resign or be forced out.

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