Updated: September 29, 2022
Twenty homes along Oʻahu’s North Shore and the public beaches below the dunes they rest on, face an ongoing battle over impacts of erosion.
Permits in the past have allowed homeowners to “shore up” land under their foundations, in an attempt to prevent their homes from toppling onto the beach and into the ocean. But state officials say many temporary emergency permits had have expired.
All the homes at Paumalu border public beaches within a State Conservation District.
“Earlier this month, utilizing a drone, we surveyed the area, and it revealed unpermitted shoreline hardening work continuing at a number of properties, in violation of Conservation District rules,” said Michael Cain administrator of the DLNR Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands. “This survey shows the enormous scale of the situation we face as regulators, and the desperate and illegal measures some homeowners continue to employ.”
Aerial photography shows some homes teetering on sandy soil just above the beach, with large sand-filled tubes litter the beach below, according to state officials. Fabric curtains drape the slopes in front of some structures, all the way down to what remains of the public beach.
“It’s a real mess and the photographs clearly show it,” Cain said.
“Allowing these structures (erosion control devices) to remain endangers the public beach, limits access to them for much of the year, and is littering the near-shore marine and shoreline environment with debris. They are supposed to be temporary, to give the landowners time to plan for moving their houses and cesspools, which few have done. There could be even greater environmental catastrophe if houses and their cesspools start falling into the ocean. This is a complicated and difficult situation to resolve,” Cain said.
The drone survey led to the creation of a document that details the permit history of each home, outlines the expired erosion control methods still in place, and any past or current enforcement actions.
“The current system of bringing enforcement actions to the Board of Land and Natural Resources, working our way through the process for contested cases requested by landowners on alleged violations, and then following up when cases are appealed in court, is slow and inefficient. Unfortunately, this process is the only enforcement tool OCCL currently has available,” Cain explained.
Department officials say shorelines are naturally dynamic. “Most of our beaches are experiencing chronic erosion. The natural, seasonal cycle of beach widening and narrowing adds to the long-term beach loss. Historically shoreline hardening such as seawalls was the solution to protect homes, but coastal experts now know it destroys beaches. OCCL estimates that more than 13 miles of beaches have already been lost in Hawai‘i due to erosion and seawalls,” according to DLNR.
“Many of the structures captured in our drone footage were given emergency permits, allowing landowners to place sandbag tubes on public land to temporarily protect their properties while the landowners worked on a long-term solution for protecting or moving their property,” Cain said.
OCCL notes that allowing the erosion control structures to remain creates an unmanaged hazardous situation that endangers public trust resources. Resolving the crisis will take a coordinated effort between all branches of the State and the counties.
Cain said, “We’re actively working with county planning departments and State legislators to try and identify solutions. We’re not alone. Coastal communities across the world are facing similar situations. We talk about ‘retreat,’ but no one has successfully implemented retreat in a densely populated area like we have with little room to move inland. We don’t have many role models to follow, and Hawai‘i is going to have to take the lead in finding solutions.”