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State Senate sea level rise bill falters over concerns of development

Office of Planning, Coastal Zone Management Program
Managed retreat Maui scenario profile

A recent Senate bill on sea level rise management sparked controversy over whether or not its "balanced" approach was code for more shoreline hardening.

"When it comes to beaches, decades of balanced decision-making has resulted in property after property being hardened with sea walls," said Chip Fletcher, the interim dean of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

He submitted testimony against Senate Bill 69, which sought changes to state coastal zone management law, including "the establishment of a consistent and balanced framework for developing and implementing sea level rise adaptation strategies."

Fletcher felt the measure would open the door to more development. "Now, in an era of sea level rise where the ocean is rising and the beaches are prevented from migrating landward because of a wall, the beach goes extinct, and further shoreline hardening is only going to result in further beach loss," he said.

"At this point, various islands have lost anywhere from 10% to 25% of their beaches because of this pattern of shoreline hardening."

Hawaiʻi current Coastal Zone Management Law prohibits the construction of sea walls, though state and local officials have made exceptions.

Attorney Duane Fisher worked with Sen. Lorraine Inouye of Hawaiʻi Island to introduce the measure. He said that allowing shoreline hardening was not its aim. "Our bill, Senate Bill 69, did not seek to make seawalls legal again. But what it did contain was some language around the ability to use structures, if those structures were used to preserve or protect the beach," said Fisher.

But Fletcher said that distinction wasn't clear in the bill, "Although that was their intention, to allow for these innovative engineering tools to maintain the beach, the language really said something different."

The bill would also limit a county's ability to use sea level rise computer modeling to establish its shoreline setback lines. Fisher said while this modeling is important, there are still too many variables for it to be an effective regulatory tool.

"We're just guessing at where that shore's gonna be in 77 years," said Fisher. "It's a great tool for other purposes, but it was never intended to be used to regulate at the parcel level."

"And that was the big concern, particularly on Maui, that they would like to use that tool to regulate at the parcel level," said Fisher.

But Maui County councilmember Tamara Paltin, who chairs Maui's Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning Committee doesn't want to wait a few decades to see exactly how sea level rise will shake out. She said sea level rise threatens her community now.

"We're not talking about the slow and steady rise of the ocean, like one foot by 2050 or even 3.2 feet by 2100. It's what one foot does when stacked upon a full moon and a king tide, a 10 to 20-foot swell," said Paltin.

"You know, like that last large swell we saw in Ma'alaea. There was plenty of damage done to like our coastal roads and things like that. And that's when we haven't been hit the one foot of sea level rise thresholds. So it's these episodic, sometimes catastrophic events. That is the real danger."

Paltin was "disheartened" to read SB69. "To me, preemption is not the way to do it. We're planning for the future here," said Paltin.

Sea level rise is what's known as a "wicked problem," said Fletcher. "There is no solution to sea level rise in which everybody wins. And most of the solutions require some sort of sacrifice on everybody's part."

But that doesn't mean people are giving up. After SB69's first hearing, Inouye instructed both Fletcher and Fisher, as well as representatives from the state Office of Planning and Sustainable Development and others who submitted testimony, to work together to try to find a workable version of the bill.

Fisher described the subsequent meeting as "super helpful."

"We talked about areas of agreement, and one thing that was acknowledged was you just can't retreat everywhere. It's too doggone hard," said Fisher. "But as they expressed their concerns, we began to understand those concerns better."

Despite the show of good faith, no consensus was reached on how SB69 should best move forward. The Senate Committee on Water and Land deferred the measure this week, essentially killing it.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter.
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