Now, Coastal Zone Protection Laws do a Better Job

The Supreme Court has ruled that development proposals can’t be parceled into smaller projects to escape the requirement for City Council review

By Thomas R. Grande

HONOLULU – The recent articles in The Honolulu Advertiser dealing with beach erosion highlight the need for adequate coordination among governmental agencies to protect our beaches.

An equally critical situation exists with respect to the area immediately inland – the coastal zone. Fortunately, there exists a set of laws preserving our coastal zone and a recent Hawaii Supreme court decision has significantly strengthened those laws.

In a case title Hawaii’s Thousand Friends v. City and County (Supreme Court No. 15923, Sept. 16), our Supreme Court ruled that property owners and government agencies cannot avoid the shoreline protection laws by splitting their projects into smaller developments.

The case involved a challenge by Hawaii’s Thousand Friends to the proposed demolition of Camp Kailua by the City and county of Honolulu. In ruling that the demolition could not proceed without City Council approval, the court enhanced the ability of the public to minimize negative environmental effects resulting from shoreline development.

The city several years ago updated the Kailua Beach Park Master Plan and proposed to undertake a $1.5 to $2 million development to turn Kailua Beach park into one of seven ocean recreation centers on Oahu. The master plan included substantial renovations of the park, and the Camp Kailua demolition.

Normally, a development of this magnitude in the protected shoreline requires a “special management area use permit,” which is issued by the City Council after a public hearing. This is to ensure that large scale projects – like multimillion-dollar beach park renovations – minimize harmful environmental and ecological effects within the coastal zone.

The city argued that the demolition itself – taken independently – would not have the potential for significant environmental impact and therefore did not need City Council approval.

The Hawaii Supreme Court rejected the city’s position and stated that where an overall project has a potential impact on the environment, the City Council must approve the project through issuance of the SMA use permit.

Why is it important to involve the City Council is such a process?

Had the court upheld the city’s position, then private developers – as well as public agencies – could simply parcel their development into smaller projects that would be exempt from City Council review.

Instead, the Court affirmed that the overall project development – and not just its individual parts – must be assessed to determine its impact on our shoreline.

the residents of Hawaii – particularly the residents of Oahu – have witnessed a dramatic decline in our coastal resource in the last two decades through improper planning and development. The outcome of the case brought by Hawaii’s Thousand Friends represents an important step to ensure that development of one of Hawaii’s most precious public resource – its coastline – is conducted with broad public participation and with minimal effect on the environment.

Thomas Grande is a partner in the law firm of Davis Levin Livingston. and attorney Cynthia Thielen represented Hawaii’s Thousand Friends in the lawsuit.

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