This story was co-published with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.
In the winter of 2013, 45-foot waves barreled toward Oahu’s North Shore. The storm surge sent water gushing up a public walkway between Dean Hanzawa’s two beachfront homes. The ocean sucked sand and soil away from the yards and pulled a wall fronting one of the homes into a 45-degree angle toward the ocean, causing the property’s yard to split in half.
To protect his property, Hanzawa brought in an excavator and dumped mounds of boulders along the public beach fronting the homes, forming large, sloping walls along the shoreline. He then piled boulders in front of the walkway, the public’s only corridor to this stretch of beach in Mokuleia, a coastal community rimmed by shimmering, turquoise water. To hold the rocks in place, he covered them with concrete.
Hawaii’s laws bar property owners from building seawalls. Scientists say such structures are the leading cause of beach loss throughout the state and have caused roughly one-quarter of Oahu’s beaches to disappear over the past century.
But Hanzawa argued that removing the seawalls would cause harm to his property, and in 2018, after a lengthy regulatory process and over the objections of some neighbors, the County of Honolulu granted him an environmental exemption that allowed the walls to remain on the beach.
This has happened time and again in Honolulu County, which oversees Oahu, the state’s most populous island. Officials there have granted so-called hardship exemptions to 46 homeowners over the past two decades, allowing them to build new seawalls, keep walls that were constructed illegally and rebuild walls that have crumbled, according to an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica.
This year, the news organizations have reported on the various ways in which coastal homeowners have used loopholes to circumvent Hawaii’s environmental laws, winning exemptions to protect their properties at the expense of the state’s beaches. Some get permission from the state to keep existing seawalls through easements, wherein homeowners essentially pay the state to lease the public lands under the structures. Others get state approvals to use sandbags and heavy tarps, which can have the same damaging effects as seawalls. The Hanzawa case illustrates how some owners are able to circumvent coastal protections at the county level.
While the state is the official guardian of the public shoreline, which extends to the high wash of the waves during the time of the year when the ocean pushes farthest inland, counties control land use policy on the other side of that line, where private property begins. Because some seawalls are located inland and others straddle both jurisdictions, property owners often have two avenues for obtaining environmental exemptions. And Honolulu County has a track record of being more permissive.
Despite strict laws against shoreline armoring, county officials have rejected just 10 of the 56 applications since 2000. Seven of those were filed in 2018 for a joint project among coastal homeowners, who have appealed the decision. The county has greenlit so many requests that property owners now cite the approvals as the rationale for their own seawalls.
The exemptions have guaranteed those lots will remain armored with seawalls for decades to come, while encouraging the redevelopment of homes along the coast despite warnings from scientists and policymakers that rising seas should push development inland. Scientists warn that by midcentury, Oahu could lose 40% of its beaches as the state faces a projected 3.2-foot rise in sea level by 2060.
Kathy Sokugawa, the county’s planning director, declined to be interviewed for this story, but her department defended its actions in written responses to questions. Asked about its history of being lenient when it comes to shoreline armoring, the department said that sometimes the issue isn’t “so simple.”
There “are times when it is in the city’s interest to have property owners maintain their seawalls, legal or otherwise,” like when soil from a coastal property could contaminate the nearshore waters, the department said. (For all practical purposes, the city and county are the same, and officials use the terms interchangeably.)
In recent years, Honolulu officials have started to take a harder line against shoreline armoring as the effects of climate change and sea level rise are increasingly felt in the islands.
In 2018, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell directed all of his departments to incorporate sea level rise projections into their permitting decisions, and he emphasized that seawalls should only be considered as a last resort and in cases where the public benefits.
But the approvals have continued. A week after Caldwell issued the order, the county approved exemptions for the two seawalls built by Hanzawa, who did not respond to interview requests for this story. And just last month, the county planning department issued a hardship exemption to the developers of an oceanfront estate with ties to former President Barack Obama.
Laura Thielen, who chaired the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources from 2007 to 2010 and until recently served as a state senator, said the news organizations’ findings suggest the state needs to be taking a harder look at what is being approved on public lands. “Either the home has to adjust,” she said, “or the entire population of Oahu and the visitors have to adjust to the loss of beaches.”
“A Jurisdictional Morass”
Before Hanzawa’s makeshift seawall was considered by the county, it raised red flags with the state.
Sam Lemmo, the top coastal lands official with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, saw the structure as a clear violation of Hawaii’s “no tolerance” policy for shoreline armoring, and he recommended that Hanzawa be ordered to remove the boulders and pay a $30,000 fine.
But Lemmo needed the support of the land board that oversees the department to move forward.
So in 2015, a year and a half after Hanzawa built the unauthorized walls, board members, who are appointed by the governor, gathered in the department’s downtown Honolulu office building to review the case.
Hanzawa told government officials that the dangerous ocean conditions threatened not just his homes but public safety. He brought with him Peter Young, who chaired the board from 2003 to 2007, before starting a private land use consulting firm.
Young noted that much of the coastline was already armored, and he urged the board to allow Hanzawa to seek permission from the county to keep the seawalls. Young, in an interview with the news organizations, said homeowners along this stretch of coastline have lost a substantial amount of property to erosion.
Lemmo emphasized to the board that his role was to protect the state’s beaches and it was important to stay consistent with that mission, according to minutes of the meeting.
The board ultimately sided with Hanzawa after hearing concerns about the harm an enforcement action would cause the homeowner. Board members said that Hanzawa should be given the chance to obtain approval to keep the seawalls from the county.
In 1977, the Legislature adopted the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Act, which was designed to ensure development was carried out in a way that protected the environment. The act envisioned the federal, state and county governments working in coordination to protect sensitive coastal resources and delegated substantial authority to the counties. But it also produced confusion about the role of each entity.
“It created a jurisdictional morass,” said Doug Meller, who in the 1980s worked on amendments to the statute as a member of the Shoreline Protection Alliance, a now-defunct environmental group.
Lemmo said the bifurcated regulatory system works when the counties are on board with beach protection. On the islands of Maui and Kauai, for example, county officials have approved just four seawall projects in total in the past 20 years.
“But if you have a jurisdiction that is basically just treating the shoreline and shoreline property as if it is any other property, that’s a problem,” Lemmo said.
On paper, Honolulu County’s policies align with the state’s, a requirement of the Coastal Zone Management Act. Its ordinance relating to shorelines states it’s the “primary policy of the city to protect and preserve the natural shoreline, especially sandy beaches,” as well as open space and public access along the coast. Protecting private property from coastal floods is secondary to those priorities, and shoreline armoring is largely prohibited.
But there are exceptions built into the code. Property owners can apply for a hardship variance. Under the county’s rules, homeowners can be granted such exceptions if denying them a seawall would harm their property interests. Property owners must also show that their need for such protection is due to unique circumstances and there is no better alternative. In other words, the exemptions should be scarce.
Honolulu County, however, has rarely denied these variance applications.
“I think overall it shows a bias in favor of property owners as opposed to the public trust, the general public,” said Dave Raney, the Hawaii Sierra Club’s lead volunteer on sea level rise.
County officials have said that Oahu’s coastlines are much more developed and populated than the neighbor islands, putting increased pressure on them to issue environmental exemptions.
But incoming Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters, an avid surfer and paddler, said the hardship exemptions need more scrutiny. He’s looking to ensure they go before the City Council for approval, where the public also has a chance to testify. (The City Council is the governing body for the county of Honolulu, which includes Oahu.) Policymakers, however, face tough — and politically unpopular — choices when dealing with coastal properties threatened by climate change. Options range from not providing any financial compensation or assistance to property owners, and just letting nature take its course, to buying out the properties — a costly proposition for cash-strapped governments.
“I wish we had enough resources to condemn these properties and allow the beach to return,” Waters said, “but we simply can’t afford that.”
A Once “Glorious Beach,” Now Gone
County officials have authorized seawalls on all corners of Oahu since 2000, expanding shoreline armoring that began decades ago. On the southern coast, there are barriers along Kahala Beach, where the shore has increasingly disappeared amid sprawling mansions. And on the North Shore, seawalls dot popular beaches in the communities of Pupukea and Laie, which have also seen erosion.
Some of the most dramatic beach loss in recent decades though has occurred along Lanikai, which used to boast a wide, white sandy beach hugged by clear, turquoise waters.
Longtime residents of Lanikai remember a wide beach where they would gather with family and friends to play volleyball and football.
“It was the most glorious beach you could possibly imagine,” said Mollie Foti, who has lived in Lanikai since 1963.
But in the late 1970s, the beach began to naturally migrate landward as the ocean drew closer to the homes. In response, property owners along the southern part of Lanikai began installing seawalls to protect their homes, setting off a domino effect of beach loss down the coastline.
Thielen grew up in Lanikai where she spent much of her childhood playing on the beach.
When she returned to Hawaii in the 1980s after being away at college, she said the beach loss was dramatic. “It is just mind boggling,” she said. “There was a huge beach. All the way from one end to the other you had a really wide beach there.”
Since 2000, county officials have approved an additional 10 seawalls along Lanikai Beach, where multimillion dollar homes have morphed into oceanfront properties as the sand has disappeared.
Today, half of the beach is gone. Waves now splash up against large walls that keep the ocean from rushing in and destroying luxury homes. People who want to fish and sunbathe squeeze into a narrow walkway that dumps straight into the ocean. The beach reemerges on the northern end where there is no armoring. In order to survive, the state’s beaches need room to be able to migrate landward, scientists say. Seawalls interrupt that natural process.
Ironically, the shoreline armoring that has destroyed so many beaches has become the rationale that property owners use for arguing why they should be allowed to keep armoring it. Homeowners assert in applications to the county that not allowing them to have a seawall when all their neighbors do is an unfair hardship, particularly when the beach erosion that’s accelerated by adjacent seawalls has caused the beach in front of their home to disappear.
That’s what happened this year, when a Lanikai property owner applied for a seawall after purchasing a home in 2017 that boasts floor-to-ceiling windows that capture an expansive view of the ocean. County officials had required a previous owner to tear out an illegal seawall in the 1990s, and the state later allowed the owner to lay a mound of emergency sandbags that blocked the public beach for the next 25 years. The county granted the new owner’s seawall application though, saying it would be unfair to deprive them of a seawall when all their neighbors had one.
Coastal experts say it can be hard to undo shoreline armoring once much of the shoreline is blanketed with walls. Just as putting up a seawall can damage the beach in front of one’s neighbor’s house, removing the wall can also cause a neighbor’s lot to be undermined as the ocean pushes farther inland.
If you remove a seawall in front of a home that is wedged between seawalls on both sides, it can cause something called flanking, Lemmo said. “The erosion will go in and around the other walls and cause them to fail. So you start a kind of reverse domino.”
At times, county officials seem more concerned with strict compliance with their policies, as opposed to fulfilling the intent of beach protection laws.
In 2003, Charles Wang, a wealthy philanthropist who was part owner of the New York Islanders, reconstructed a seawall in front of his home without authorization. County officials said he would have to take it down. Approving the wall “would send the wrong signal to the community” and encourage illegal structures, county officials wrote in their final decision.
But they also ruled that Wang could build a new, county-approved sloping wall in its place. County officials reasoned that the wall’s slope would be less damaging to the beach, even though the project’s environmental assessment concluded otherwise. County officials later reversed their decision, allowing him to keep the rebuilt wall.
Wang died in 2018 and the new owner of the property did not return a request for comment. The beach that once fronted the home is gone.
“Where Does It End?”
For generations, Mokuleia had been a popular spot among locals for fishing, surfing and diving among the reefs. But by the time Hanzawa brought in the boulders in 2013, there was just one way people could access the 1.3 mile stretch of coastline: a public walkway that ran between his two homes. His shoreline armoring left it walled off.
County officials later closed the public entrance altogether. They said it was too dangerous.
Beachgoers are now greeted by a chain-link fence and sign that reads: “Keep Out: No Trespassing.”
The move has angered neighbors who live in lots back from the ocean who now have to drive down the coastline just to swim in the waters. They’ve been fighting the county to reopen the public corridor to no avail. Hanzawa has since sold both homes.
“It’s created a situation where that beach now has just become a private beach for the people who live on the water,” said Chris Dodds, who lives back from the oceanfront lots.
In fact, the county has approved seawall exemptions for 17 of the 20 beachfront homes that line this stunning stretch of coastline.
Kelly LaPorte, a local attorney who grew up along Mokuleia beach, remembers being able to walk the entire stretch of coast. Today, most of the beach is gone as waves crash against a long line of seawalls. He questioned the logic of approving new seawalls just because other parts of the shoreline are armored.
“Where does it end?” he said. “The more armoring you do, you are basically putting your neighbor’s property in jeopardy. So it’s like, OK, let’s make it worse for the next guy.”
Local residents say the seawalls have caused hazardous conditions during big swells when the ocean isn’t able to naturally glide up along the beach. Beachgoers clamber over slabs of concrete made slippery by algae, while boulders and debris from crumbling walls get knocked around in the surf.
After the county approved Hanzawa’s seawalls in 2018, a coalition of neighbors challenged the decision. But two years later, the county has yet to appoint a hearings officer to oversee the case.
Sokugawa said the county has struggled to find a qualified and available hearings officer but expects to appoint one soon.