State Land Board Grapples with Threat of Coastal Erosion to Infrastructure, Homes

posted in: June 2014 | 0
April was a difficult month for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. Despite its long-standing policy against shoreline hardening, the office twice recommended that the Board of Land and Natural Resources approve major rock revetments along Maui shorelines to protect critical infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the agency moved to fine landowners on O`ahu’s North Shore more than $45,000 for illegal structures hastily installed this past winter to protect their properties from severe ocean swells that devastated the area.
Harrowing Highway
Similar to Kamehameha Highway on O`ahu, waves regularly wash over Maui’s Honoapi`ilani Highway during high surf. The road, the main artery between Lahaina and Wailuku, has been in trouble for years, and on April 11, the Land Board unanimously approved an OCCL recommendation to grant a Conservation District Use Permit to the state Department of Transportation, which plans to dump large boulders along a 900-foot section at Olowalu.More than a decade ago, the DOT installed a temporary, emergency revetment along the highway after storm waves severely undermined the road there. According to OCCL administrator Sam Lemmo, the DOT wants to replace that revetment with a “more permanent, better engineered” shoreline protection structure.He said that while he knows armoring isn’t the best thing for beaches, abandoning the highway isn’t an option right now. Given the quality and location of the beach at Olowalu, neither restoration nor placement of offshore breakwaters is a desirable option, he added.

Ideally, his office wants the county to relocate the highway, but it can’t, at least not right now, he told the Land Board. The Maui County Council has voted to buy land to relocate the highway and the DOT is “seriously considering” relocation, he said, but in the meantime, the boulder revetment will fortify the highway.

“We don’t see a lot of ecological impacts and the need is very high,” Lemmo said. Although his office was recommending approval of the CDUP, it was with a “serious recommendation urging the relocation of the whole highway.”

At-large Land Board member David Goode, who also works with Maui County, said that as properties in the area are subdivided for development, the county is carving out sections to allow the highway to be moved mauka.

“Funding will be a main constraint,” he said.

Wastewater Woes

As uncomfortable as Lemmo was with condoning the Honoapi`ilani erosion control project, the 1,100-foot rock revetment Maui County wants to construct to protect its Wailuku-Kahului Wastewater Treatment Plant seemed to cause him even more grief.

Unlike Olowalu, which has only a thin stretch of cobble beach, the wastewater plant is flanked by large, high-quality, sandy beaches that are frequented by a variety of ocean users. A 400-foot revetment already protects a portion of the facility, but the county’s Department of Environmental Management wants to extend it to a total of 1,350 feet.

All of Maui County’s wastewater treatment plants are located in coastal areas, but its Wailuku-Kahului wastewater treatment plant, at just three feet above sea level, is particularly vulnerable to tsunami inundation and sea level rise. The facility was partly flooded by the 2011 tsunami from Japan.

To protect the plant, which serves tens of thousands of Maui residents, the county is proposing to excavate the coastline, install and bury the revetment, and cap it with sand.

Lemmo estimated that erosion would expose the structure in about a decade or two and that beach loss in the adjacent area would accelerate in tandem with sea level rise.

Again, he said, there are few alternatives in this case. The county determined that beach nourishment would be too expensive and it would be too difficult to find a good source of sand for an area that large, he said.

“You’re talking about massive quantities of sand,” Lemmo said.

The county also considered retreating from the shoreline, but “at the end of the day, some facilities can’t be relocated and those will be threatened by coastal hazards,” Lemmo said. A county study estimated that it would cost $400 million to $500 million to relocate the plant; the county’s total annual budget is $600 million.

“Once again, like Olowalu, [this is] a major facility critical to maintaining public safety and welfare,” Lemmo said. “They’ve done, in our estimation, all they can do to protect the beaches. We’re not happy about this situation. It’s a very difficult recommendation I have to make because it will result in beach degradation.”

Although his office recommended approval of the CDUP, it included a condition requiring the county to “implement a decommissioning plan for the … facility by June 30, 2064, and restore the shoreline to the best possible condition as practical.”

At the Land Board’s April 11 meeting, Maui Department of Environmental Management director Kyle Ginoza asked that the condition be deleted. While relocating the plant is a priority for the county, it first needs to find the money before it can start planning a move, he said.

Even if the county could afford to move the plant, it would still need to maintain a pumping facility near the shore, he added.

“As long as people like to live along the shoreline, we’re going to have this problem,” Ginoza said.

When Maui Land Board member Jimmy Gomes asked whether a private entity could fund the relocation, Ginoza noted that a company has proposed doing exactly that, but the county would lose some of its design flexibility and authority. Ultimately, it would be up to the County Council to decide whether to put up the money or not, Ginoza said.

“What happens if the board denies this? What other recourse do you have?” Gomes asked.

Ginoza said a denial would set the stage for a battle between the county and the state Department of Health if waves somehow breached the facility.

“[If] we’re spilling sewage … we would have to get an emergency permit for an emergency revetment, or stop taking sewage and tell everyone to stop flushing the toilet,” he said.

“You know and I know you can’t stop them from using the facilities,” Gomes replied.

Ginoza said finally that “there really is no fallback for us. … There is no real, plausible Plan B absent raising taxes and raising sewer fees.”

Unsatisfied with the county’s planning efforts, Dan Purcell, a member of the public, asked for a contested case hearing on the matter. Because he did not follow up with a written petition, the Land Board was free to approve the CDUP at its April 25 meeting, which it did with only a slight amendment to the OCCL’s recommended conditions.

Mayhem at Mokuleia

This past winter, homeowners along O`ahu’s Sunset Beach pleaded with the DLNR for help as waves ripped away at their land. The agency forbade them from installing any seawalls but did allow them to push sand around to create protective berms, which largely did the job. In Mokuleia, however, a few desperate landowners chose to harden the shoreline fronting their homes, knowing that they might be fined. And on April 11, the Land Board fined two of them $10,000.

In December 2012, as waves threatened a home owned by Kathryn and Morris Mitsunaga, the DLNR authorized the emergency installment of a sandbag wall, which could be left in place for up to three years. But this past January, with the wall failing, the Mitsunagas, without DLNR approval, placed large boulders along the shore.

On April 11, the OCCL recommended fining them $15,000 for unauthorized construction and $500 in administrative costs. It also recommended that the board require the revetment to be removed.

At the Land Board’s meeting, OCCL administrator Sam Lemmo noted that most of the properties in the area are protected by seawalls built decades ago. The four or five properties that have not been armored are suffering from the flanking effects of the seawalls, he said.

For years, the OCCL has been working with the landowners in the area on remedial options, i.e., sandbags, he said, but this year, “we had some very serious oceanic events.”

The Mitsunagas’ property was damaged and they “essentially decided unilaterally to install a boulder revetment to save the house,” Lemmo said, adding that the owners of a number of other properties did same and faced fines as well.

Architect and former Kaua`i Land Board member Ron Agor, testifying on behalf of the Mitsunagas, said the waves one night in January “literally knocked the front foundation wall out [and] eroded six feet below…

“The owners … made a conscious decision to protect their property by installing boulders, knowing that the wrath of Superman at OCCL [Lemmo] was coming,” Agor said.

Agor said that he had designed repairs to the home that would allow them to remove the revetment and that the Mitsunagas would be receiving an emergency permit from the City and County of Honolulu to do the work.

“I certainly sympathize with the situation. Those kinds of things are probably happening in the middle of the night … and you desperately need to take action. It’s hard to consult with offices that won’t be open until the next day. … Nevertheless, we have our shoreline protection and processes to deal with,” Land Board member Sam Gon said.

Kathryn Mitsunaga testified that the night the boulders went in, a huge 40-foot wave wiped out their windows. “We knew it was illegal [but] we had to do something to save our house,” she said.

Several Land Board members seemed sympathetic to her plight and asked Lemmo what leeway they had with the proposed fine. Lemmo noted that his office’s penalty schedule recommends fines of $10,000 to $15,000 for the kind of violation the Mitsunagas committed.

He urged the board to impose the maximum fine, noting that he had other cases in the area that are very serious and willful, “people building seawalls despite government agencies saying you shouldn’t do this.”

“I’m really concerned about a decision here that even remotely sets a precedent,” he continued. ‘I have complete sympathy for the Mitsunagas, but [a waiver or significant fine reduction] would make my job difficult.”

If the board is too lenient, people will put armor stones in and “there’s going to be a tremendous outcry [and it] will be very difficult to prosecute these cases,” he said. “I’m really just cautioning you. … I gotta get that on the record.”

In the end, the Land Board voted to lower the fine to $10,000 plus the $500 in administrative costs.

Two weeks later, Lemmo presented a violation case of armoring that occurred next door to the Mitsunagas. This time, it involved properties owned by Grand View Apt, Inc., as well as a City and County of Honolulu right-of-way.

The same large storm in January that damaged the Mitsunagas’ property also undermined a seawall along the properties owned by Grand View. Officers of the company testified that a portion of the wall leaned over the beach so precariously, they worried that someone could get hurt or killed if it fell.

Like the Mitsunagas, the company installed boulders along the shore, but it also cemented them together in a wall that spanned its two properties as well as the county right-of-way. While the structure largely replaced a previously existing seawall, it also encroached seaward onto state land, Lemmo said. The armoring of the right-of-way was all new construction.

In addition to recommending that the board require removal of those portions of the structure within the Conservation District, Lemmo also urged it to impose the maximum $15,000 fine for the construction along Grand View’s property, another $15,000 for the work on the right-of-way, plus $1,000 in administrative costs.

Howard Hanzawa, an officer of Grand View, said he didn’t have any problem with the enforcement action and, in fact, said the OCCL is “doing a good job.” However, he seemed to want to find a way to keep the structure in place.

He pointed out that in December, with massive waves already threatening the properties, his brother, Dean, also a Grand View officer, called the DLNR and the city warning that something needed to be done.

Waves scoured sand and soil from the right-of-way, creating a 12-foot deep ditch, Howard Hanzawa said. Water then started flowing up through the right-of-way, into the backyards of Grand View’s parcels on opposite sides, and back down into the sea, he said. Two-ton boulders, once part of the seawall, were being tossed around like basketballs, he added.

“The hydraulic pressure pushed the seawall towards the ocean. It wasn’t vertical anymore,” he continued.

Neighbors in the area testified that the waves had created a critical and dangerous situation.

Howard Hanzawa added that if the City and County of Honolulu hadn’t created a right-of-way that cut his seawall in half, the revetment would have protected the properties.

“If we could have done it another way we would have.… My main concern is [the wall] would fall on somebody and kill somebody,” Dean Hanzawa said.

He suggested that the state develop an emergency committee that could advise landowners on their options.

Surveyor Dennis Esaki, a relative of the Hanzawas and a state Land Use Commissioner, hinted that an easement could possibly be granted for the encroachment. In any case, he seemed to want to survey the seawall.

With the Land Board about to lose quorum, Lemmo suggested that it defer the matter and have Grand View survey the area of new construction that is seaward of what previously existed. The board then voted to defer the matter.


– Teresa Dawson


Volume 24, Number 12 June 2014


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