City Climate Change Commission Mulls Changes to Shoreline Setback Ordinance

posted in: Climate Change, December 2019 | 0

Sunset Beach homeowners Gary and Cynthia Stanley may have bought some time to keep their unauthorized sandbag burrito pile in place through the winter by requesting a contested case hearing from the Board of Land and Natural Resources (see Board Talk), but the long-term future of their home and others in the area is dubious, at best.

Hawai‘i magazine last month reported on one 40-year Sunset Beach resident who has accepted that he may have to abandon his home as the shoreline erodes ever closer.

It’s unlikely seawalls or other type of hardening will be a viable or even legal solution.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources has a policy against shoreline hardening within the Conservation District. The City & County of Honolulu
does allow structures, including seawalls, to be built much closer to the shore than Kaua‘i or Maui counties, but that may soon change.

Under the city’s shoreline setback ordinance, structures must generally be built no closer than 40 feet inland from a certified shoreline. For shallow lots, the shoreline setback line can be as close as 20 feet from the shoreline to allow a minimum depth of buildable area of 30 feet.

With sea level expected to rise significantly in the coming decades as a result of climate change, the city Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) is in the process of amending those standards, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell has sought guidance from the Honolulu Climate Change Commission.

DPP planner Katia Balassiano said earlier this year that her department is looking to Kaua‘i’s setback ordinance as a model. Kaua‘i’s minimum setback distance is 60 feet from the certified shoreline plus 70 times the historical annual erosion rate.

At its November 18 meeting, the commission discussed several other possible amendments. In addition to simply acknowledging the science of climate change and sea level rise, the setback ordinance should also be tailored to the specific physical and/or ecological characteristics of an area and not necessarily tied to an individual parcel, commissioners suggested. Commissioner Chip Fletcher argued for the closure of a “loophole” in the ordinance regarding setback variances that has allowed homeowners to build seawalls too close to the shore. The ordinance allows for a “hardship variance,” so long as the planning director determines that the applicant’s proposal is “a reasonable use of the land.”

“The determination of the reasonableness of the use of land should properly consider factors such as shoreline conditions, erosion, surf and flood conditions and the geography of the lot,” the ordinance states.

“I would posit there is evidence all around us it’s been violated,” Fletcher said. He argued that under the current laws, state and county agencies have granted permits for shoreline hardening that has resulted in significant erosion.

“Shoreline hardening goes against objectives of the [shoreline setback] chapter. It destroys the beach. It preserves the land associated with a single landowner and ignores the public trust. … You are sacrificing the good of all for the good of a parcel owner,” he said.

“One may ask, is it a ‘reasonable use of the land’ during a time of sea level rise to develop it, to develop a parcel in a location where you know the parcel is not going to outlast the threats of sea level rise? … Is it reasonable to develop a high-risk zone?” he continued.

The matter of whether to allow for the repair and maintenance of eroding seawalls is particularly difficult, he said.

“How are we going to recover beaches if we are perpetually repairing seawalls? How are we not going to repair seawalls without an exit strategy for the homeowner?” he said.

In light of a recent controversy over the fact that the U.S. military plans to install a large seawall to protect a training area in ‘Ewa Beach — without any city or state permits — commissioner Rosie Alegado asked how much coastal land the military controls and if there are any other entities that are exempt from shoreline setback policies.

“It would be interesting for me to know if they are interested in dialoging with what we’re proposing,” she said.

At its December 17 meeting, the commission may take action on a white paper, prepared by members Fletcher and chair Makena Coffman, that provides recommendations on changes to the city’s shoreline setback ordinance.

—Teresa Dawson

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