Hawai`i County Takes Renewed Interest in Keaukaha Seawall After DLNR Signs Off

posted in: March 2017 | 0

About a year ago, architect Robert Iopa rebuilt a crumbling seawall in front of property he owns in the Keaukaha area of Hilo. He did not ask for, nor did he receive, permission from either the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands (OCCL), which oversees activity in the shoreline area, or the Hawai`i County Planning Department, which has authority over nearshore lands.

He did get the approval of the then-director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation. Under an executive order nearly a century old, the DPR administers state-owned land shoreward of Iopa’s lot. The DPR, however, has no legal authority to unilaterally permit the kind of work Iopa then undertook.

Iopa rebuilt the wall and backfilled it in connection with his larger plans for the lot he owned, where he was intending to build a house. Extending from the house to the wall would be an expanse of lawn where before existed a rocky shore, ironwood trees, tidal pools, and springs.

After complaints from neighbors and a stop-work order from the Planning Department, the OCCL got involved. Last May, DLNR director and Board of Land and Natural Resources chairperson Suzanne Case and Iopa executed an agreement requiring Iopa to remove the repairs to the wall and the backfill within 180 days (by November 20).

In late November and early December, workers hired by Iopa took out much of the rebuilt wall. In a letter to Iopa dated December 16, 2016, Sam Lemmo, OCCL administrator, stated, “the offending repaired portion of the seawall has been removed to the department’s satisfaction.”

County Concerns

Hawai`i County was not so easily appeased.

In December, after learning of Lemmo’s letter indicating his agency was satisfied with Iopa’s work to remove part of the rebuilt wall, many of the residents living near Iopa’s parcel were outraged. They had expected the state to insist on removal of the fill as well as dismantling of the new construction.

County agencies, now under the leadership of newly elected Mayor Harry Kim, responded to the complaints with the formal notices of violation from both the Department of Public Works and the Planning Department. In addition, the landowner to the west of Iopa, the Louis J. and Helene C. Deetman Trust, also was put on notice that Planning Department inspectors had found unauthorized work on the trust’s lot, including newly built walls and newly placed fill.

The first notice came on January 18, when the county Department of Public Works sent Iopa a notice of violation of the Hawai`i County ordinance concerning floodplain management.

On March 9, 2016, and January 10, 2017, wrote DPW director Frank DeMarco, “our construction inspector did a site inspection … It was found that fill (including stone walls) was brought onto the property sometime between the two inspection dates.”

Because the property where the work was done lies in a special flood hazard area, DeMarco stated, Iopa was in violation of the Hawai`i County Code’s prohibition on placement of fill in a zone of special flood hazard, Hawai`i County Code Section 27-18(c)(3). In addition, Iopa is also “potentially in violation” of Section 27-18(c)(5) of the County Code if he were to build on the fill, DeMarco wrote.

Iopa was ordered to remove “all fill and stone walls” by March 1, 2017, or, as an alternative, “provide a certification by a professional civil engineer licensed in the state of Hawai`i,” attesting, “with supporting data, that the encroachment would not cause any increase in base flood elevations during the occurrence of the base flood discharge,” as provided in the County Code.

Three weeks later, the county Planning Department issued a notice of violation and order to Iopa. Planning Director Michael Yee took note of correspondence Iopa had sent to the department in December, informing the department that his plans to build a house on his Keaukaha lot had changed and that now he was proposing to proceed with a much smaller two-story studio structure, with its expansion into a much larger house at an unspecified date.

The larger house had been the subject of a Special Management Area Use Permit Assessment Application submitted in December 2015. Initially, the Planning Department had approved the application, but once the reconstruction of the seawall – specifically not approved by the department – came to the department’s attention, Iopa was told to submit a shoreline survey and stop work on the property makai of a dry stack wall he had built landward of the rebuilt wall.

It was at this point that the DLNR became involved, ordering Iopa to remove the wall by the end of November. Once the DLNR intervened, the county pulled back.

On  February 8, however, Yee informed Iopa that he was in violation of county Planning Commission rules “due to the unpermitted land alteration activity within the shoreline setback area within the Special Management Area without first obtaining the proper approvals and/or permits from this department.”

Yee then laid out two options for Iopa.

Option A involved immediate implementation of Best Management Practices (BMP) to prevent any loose soil, rock, or sand on Iopa’s lot from entering the marine environment; payment of a $1,500 fine for SMA violations; payment of a $1,000 fine for Shoreline Setback Area violations; restoration of the setback area to the condition it was in at the time the permit application for the house was approved, following a plan submitted and approved by the department before restoration work is undertaken; and notification of the Planning Department at the time the corrective work is completed.

Option B also involved the implementation of BMPs and the payment of fines. In addition, Iopa would need to secure a certified shoreline by April 7, submit an SMA use permit assessment application for land alteration activities within a year of the certified shoreline date and detail “all uses and proposed uses of the parcel and structures thereon,” and also submit a shoreline setback variance application for any work proposed for work in that area as well.

By press time, neither the Planning Department nor the Department of Public Works had received a response from Iopa. Iopa did not respond to a request for comment.

— Patricia Tummons

For Further Reading

Environment Hawai`i has published several articles on this subject.

  • “Prominent Architect, County Parks Head Flout SMA Regulations to Build Seawall,” May 2016;
  • “Editorial: The New Keaukaha Seawall Must Come Down and the Parks Director Should Resign,” May 2016;
  • “Seawall Update,” in “New & Noteworthy” section, June 2016;
  • “Seawall Comes Down,” in “New & Noteworthy” section, January 2017.

All are available online at our website, http://www.environment-hawaii.org. Current subscribers have free access; others wishing to view the articles can pay $10 for a two-day full archive pass.

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