Q. Aren't all beaches in Hawaii open to the public?
A. Yes, Hawaii's Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the public's right to go to the beach based on our unique political and cultural history as an independent nation. Unfortunately, our right to beach access is being eroded. Beach front properties, military installations, private gates, and no trespass signs stand where paths once led people to the beach. Our growing population and unplanned development are challenging us to find creative ways to live in harmony.
In recent years there have been an increasing number of cases involving "private" property rights versus public access. In Kailua, for example, residents had used the beach path at the end of L'Orange Place - a private lane - for decades. Then those homeowners decided to install a locked gate earlier this year. City Councilwoman Barbara Marshall says they were within their rights, and neighbors' claims of "implied consent" or adverse possession do not apply because L'Orange Place is a Land Court parcel. Other "public" beachside streets along Kalaheo Avenue have purchased their easements and put up locked gates, despite the fact our tax dollars pay for the upkeep of some of those roads.
In effect, private beachfront areas are being created when there are three or four gated roads next to each other, while residents and visitors are being herded towards the main beach parks.
Q. Isn't it a State law that there must be access every quarter mile of beach?
A. No. It's a City & County suggested guideline, that says where "reasonable" in "urbanized areas" there "should" be access every quarter mile. However, in Kailua at least two of the public accesses are more than a half mile apart.
Q. Why are more open beach access ways needed in Kailua, when there are already seven public rights-of-way?
A. Kalaheo Avenue is not pedestrian friendly. Stretches of it have very narrow shoulders that make it dangerous for children and even adults since there is a high volume of traffic. This presents a serious challenge to health and safety in the event of beach emergencies. We should also be encouraging people to walk more, and drive less. Each time a gate goes up, additional foot and car traffic is funneled toward the few remaining open roads -- which creates noise, litter and parking problems for homeowners near those accesses. If more accesses were open, the beach traffic would be distributed better.
Hawaii's Revised Statute ∫ 115 states that "the absence of public rights-of-way is a contributing factor to mounting acts of hostility against private shoreline properties."
Q. Where do our government officials stand on the issue?
A. City Councilwoman Barbara Marshall says she supports public access. But she has done nothing to help open up more access ways. She feels other parts of Oahu have worse beach access problems than Kailua, which may be true. BAH agrees those areas deserve more public rights of way too.
State Sen. Fred Hemmings says the City Council "has shirked their responsibilities" on public access, and contends it is the County's responsibility -- not the State's. Marshall points out there is nothing in the law stopping the State from acquiring more accesses, and notes that the State has more money to do so than the counties.
State Representative Cynthia Thielen says she supports public beach access for residents, and asked her homeowners association on Kai Nani Place to keep their gate unlocked during daylight hours for neighbors who wish to use that beach path. BAH applauds their voluntary decision, and wishes other private lanes would follow their example.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann says the City cannot afford to acquire easements to provide more public access. However, voters approved a City Charter amendment last year that actually sets aside money to purchase land for "access to beaches and mountains."
Police and Fire representatives have stated that gated access and poor signage deters their ability to provide rescue services. The longer the distance between access, the more our safety is at risk.
Q. What are the legal options to protect beach access?
A. The concept of "implied dedication" was used by the Kuulei Tract homeowners to argue that long-standing use of the Banyan Tree path implied the public had a right to continue using it. Rather than go through condemnation, Rep. Thielen negotiated to have an easement given to residents.
If easements in perpetuity cannot be negotiated with private road homeowners, condemnation of selected access ways may be the only legal solution at present. The City would have to negotiate the price to acquire the right-of-way and assume the costs of maintaining it. However, the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources does have a provision for the State to provide matching funds to acquire public accesses if the County asks for it.
Q. Does this affect local businesses?
A, Yes it does. Beach access directly affects both locals and visitors being able to use the public beaches for recreation and cultural practices. Hawaii's economy earns at least $800 million a year from ocean-based activities.
Q. Is compromise possible?
A. We hope so. Homeowners on private lanes cite crime and noise problems as a major reason they feel they need gates. But there is evidence that the gates actually contribute to more problems, not less as they create antagonism, are darker and un-patrolled, and invite people to challenge them.
While some individuals on gated roads, along with Rep. Thielen, have said they think it’s worth a try, others -- such as the majority of the L'Orange Place homeowners association -- have not shown any willingness to compromise. We hope that over time beach front residents will realize that it is in their benefit to maintain and share the historical beach access that the people of Hawaii depend on for health and happiness, that is a part of our local culture, and that has been mandated as a right of the people by the Hawaii Supreme Court. Let's get Aloha back to the beach access points!