Bill 17 & Shoreline Setbacks

1 04 2014

Bill 17 PhotoIn a recent edition of the Star Advertiser, the editorial headline shouted “Don’t Ease Rules on Retaining Walls”. It was a critical commentary on Bill 17, a measure I introduced relating to shoreline setbacks. Contrary to the false impression created by the editorial and a similarly misinformed article in Civil Beat, Bill 17 would not allow sea walls or groins anywhere near any shoreline. It certainly would not permit such structures on sandy beaches such as those on the north shore of Oahu. Instead, Bill 17 would allow property owners of shoreline residential lots to build retaining walls, still through a permitting process, designed to limit erosion of “terrigenous” soil, consisting mostly of mud and silt, into the ocean. These lots are primarily found along Kaneohe Bay and have been responsible for vast amounts of sedimentation that has accumulated in the Bay over the years. Once clean and clear, Kaneohe Bay is a testament to the destructive force of sedimentation and unchecked run off into the ocean.

Because of the relatively limited shoreline available for residential development in Hawaii, oceanfront property will always be in high demand. Likewise there should be a corresponding insistence on shoreline protection measures. But strict protection of coastal zone areas on Oahu has not always been a high priority and some areas like Kaneohe Bay may never recover. Some shorelines have already been “hardened” by protective structures that tend to cause further erosion problems for adjacent property owners. In a report prepared for the Department of Land and Natural Resources in 1993, shoreline alterations, including seawalls, groins and other structures characterized 88% of the South Kaneohe Bay shoreline. It is likely that a great many of those structures were built illegally, but it is unreasonable to expect that they can be easily or completely removed. Rather than admit to the severity of the problem, the Department of Planning and Permitting contends that the current law has been working well since 1970. If you gauge success by the slim number of variances issued since then, and ignore the proliferation of illegal structures due in part to the nearly impossible permitting process, I guess you would be satisfied. In testimony opposing Bill 17, DPP claimed that it is in conflict with state law. But state law prohibits construction of private erosion-protection structures seaward of the shoreline “except when they result in improved aesthetic and engineering solutions to erosion at the sites and do not interfere with existing recreational and waterline activities.”

While DPP is to be commended for their vigilance, Department rules on shoreline setbacks has been a “one size fits all” approach to shoreline management for a long time. Retaining walls are not even considered for minor shoreline structure permits under the current regulations, in spite of the fact that such retaining walls could be a tool to control soil erosion by way of terraced landscaping. Rather than take a serious look at the suggestion that retaining walls could have a positive effect on the environment if designed in accordance with standardized specifications, DPP has been directing property owners to apply for extremely costly and time consuming variances instead. I heard from property owners who have been trying for decades to obtain a variance that would allow them to stabilize their shoreline and prevent the steady loss of ground, some of them at the mercy of a neighboring illegal seawall. Rather than find relief, they have been tied up in red tape and even in court, in an attempt to meet the astringent conditions imposed by the Department. It is a complicated legal process out of reach for many land owners, especially families of modest means on the windward side who have experienced years of continuous erosion of their property but lack the resources to pursue a variance. Bill 17 seeks to make the rules more responsive to people while it also helps to protect the marine environment. It is time to get real about the true purpose of the law and exactly what is was designed to serve and protect.


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