Investigating how policymakers are undermining laws and regulations intended to protect the state’s all-important beaches, which are eroding at an alarming rate.
This article was produced in partnership with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which was a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in 2020.
Property owners selling homes, hotels, condos and businesses along Hawaii’s coastlines must disclose whether the properties are susceptible to damage from sea level rise under legislation that’s set to take effect next May.
While the risks of building and maintaining property along the state’s shorelines have been evident for decades, state lawmakers passed the measure this year to make sure that prospective buyers are fully aware of those risks, which will only increase as the state’s coastlines are increasingly battered by flooding and stronger storms.
“It’s looking at making sure that if people are buying our shoreline properties that they are well aware of what the drawbacks might be in the future,” said Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, D-Wailuku, who introduced the bill, which will become law this month.
The action follows an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica that found property owners were routinely selling beachfront homes on Oahu that were poised to be damaged or sucked into the ocean and commanding record prices in the process. To protect their properties — and sometimes to position them for sale — dozens of homeowners have skirted Hawaii’s environmental laws by winning emergency exemptions from the state to install large mounds of sandbags and drape heavy tarps along the state’s public beaches.
The emergency structures are only supposed to remain in place temporarily, but the state has granted repeated extensions and in some cases lost track of the approvals, the news organizations found. The exemptions, part of a series of environmental loopholes investigated by the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica, have fueled development along sensitive coastlines and hastened the erosion of Hawaii’s renowned beaches, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
On Oahu’s famous North Shore, about one-third of the homes that received emergency approvals beginning in 2018 were subsequently sold or listed for sale. Some of the buyers said they didn’t realize that the permits were going to expire.
State law already requires that a seller disclose all “material facts” about their property, including any conditions that are expected to affect its value in the future. The new law requires that sellers specifically cite whether a property is located in an area that is expected to be affected by sea level rise by midcentury, based on maps developed by scientists at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The detailed maps, which are searchable by lot number, provide an analysis of the risks of flooding and coastal erosion for individual properties based on different sea level rise projections.
Similar real estate disclosure bills have failed in the past amid opposition from the real estate industry, but state lawmakers and environmental groups said they redoubled their efforts after the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported on the emergency exemptions for sandbags. Environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club, saw the legislation as a means to help curb further environmental exemptions. Buyers, they said, would have a harder time getting state approval for emergency sandbags, for instance, if they were officially warned of the risks of coastal living beforehand.
According to scientists, the sandbags pose an existential threat to Hawaii’s beaches in the same way that seawalls do. As waves hit a hardened shoreline, they pull sand into the ocean with no way to replenish it, causing beaches to essentially drown. Seawalls have contributed to the loss of about one-quarter of the beaches on Oahu, Maui and Kauai, and local scientists have warned that the state will be down to just a handful of healthy beaches if property owners don’t start retreating from the coastline.
The overall impact of sea level rise on Hawaii’s coastal properties is expected to be vast. Statewide, 6,500 structures located along the shorelines, including homes, hotels, shopping malls, schools, churches and community centers, are expected to be damaged or destroyed by 3.2 feet of sea level rise, which could occur by 2060, according to the Hawai‘i Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation report, published in December 2017. An estimated 20,000 residents will be displaced. The value of damaged structures and 25,800 acres that are projected to be flooded is pegged at $19 billion.
Keith-Agaran said that the Legislature appropriated funding this year to relocate inland portions of the highway that runs along Oahu’s North Shore. “Ultimately, I think what needs to happen is the government needs to serve as an example and leader and move back infrastructure and roads,” he said.
The Legislature also passed a bill this year that requires state agencies to identify existing and planned state facilities that are vulnerable to increased flooding and more powerful storms associated with climate change, and assess such options as flood-proofing or relocating buildings and infrastructure inland.
More aggressive measures that sought to rein in emergency shoreline approvals and limit easements for old seawalls died this year after Hawaii island Sen. Lorraine Inouye declined to hear them. Inouye, the chair of the Senate Water and Land Committee, said she wanted more time to work with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, which is in charge of protecting the state’s beaches, on potential fixes to Hawaii’s laws and policies.
One of those measures would have set a hard deadline of three years after a permit has been issued for property owners to remove emergency sandbags and what are referred to as burritos: heavy, black material anchored by sand-filled tubes. Rep. David Tarnas, D-Waimea, who chairs the House Water and Land Committee, said after the measures were shelved that he planned to push for the legislation again next year if the state didn’t put limits on the emergency approvals. Tarnas said there was too much pressure from the public and within the Legislature not to act.
Officials with the Department of Land and Natural Resources said in December that they would be working to address the issue by amending the administrative rules that allow the emergency approvals, but still haven’t indicated what changes are being considered.
Sam Lemmo, who oversees the department’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said by email that the proposed rule revisions should be released sometime this summer. They will need to be approved by the board that oversees the department.
Meanwhile, emergency sandbags and burritos continue to dot Oahu’s North Shore, many with permits that have expired or are set to expire this summer. The conservation and coastal lands office said in February that its latest tally indicated 44 properties had installed the protections, either legally or illegally. However, Lemmo said he couldn’t provide the media with that list, an earlier version of which was previously public, because it is now considered an “enforcement tool.”
Lemmo declined to comment on whether the state intended to force property owners to remove their burritos or fine them for failing to do so, but said the state will soon be corresponding with property owners who have the temporary emergency structures. He told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica the same thing in December after the news organizations reported on the North Shore exemptions. Several authorized burritos were set to expire in January.
“Apologies for the lack of detailed answers, but my staff is in the thick of this,” Lemmo said last week. “We cannot comment publicly until we execute our actions publicly.”