An appeal of a zoning variance, which would allow a new hotel to encroach 60 feet onto Waikīkī beach fronting the Moana Surfrider, is being heard

In the early 1950s, when architect Patrick Onishi was a youngster, the Waikiki shoreline lay wide open to sunlight and breezes, punctuated by trees, lawns, low-lying wooden houses, sea walls and piers. There were maybe three hotels on the beach: the Moana Surfrider, Royal Hawaiian and Halekulani. There were lei vendors along the sidewalks and, in the evenings, you had “the fragrance of the lauae. Waikiki was magical to me as a child,” Onishi said on March 22, squinting in the sun outside the Mission Memorial Auditorium while, inside, the city Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) debated whether to allow him to testify.

A soft-spoken man with a merry smile, Onishi had been called as a witness for petitioners appealing city planning Director David K. Tanoue’s grant of a zoning variance to Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts. This would permit a new, 26-story structure jutting 60 feet into the 100-foot shoreline setback zone at Waikiki Beach.

The law

This case hinges upon a zoning law known as the Waikiki Special District (WSD). Passed in 1976, the WSD requires that new construction be set back at least 100 feet from the certified shoreline. There is an additional building height setback, which Kyo-ya’s new structure would exceed.

Onishi, as the director of the city Department of Land Utilization in 1996, oversaw the adoption of amendments to the WSD that “made it possible for renovations and improvements so that the general state of Waikiki wouldn’t fall into decline,” Onisihi remarked to this reporter during the recess, explaining that the intent was to reduce applications for variances. “The [WSD] intended to create more open space. I feel personally the scale of [the new structure] is going to distract [from that],” he said.

It’s little wonder Kyo-ya’s attorney, Barry Sullivan, strenuously objected to Onishi’s testimony being heard.

Tanoue had granted the variance on grounds that the WSD restrictions would cause the landowner unnecessary hardship. His findings of fact included that the new development would not alter the essential character of the neighborhood.

The ZBA hearing began with the opening statement of Linda Paul, sole attorneyfor the five petitioners–KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, the Surfrider Foundation, Ka Iwi Coalition/Save Sandy Beach and Michelle S. Matson.

For the opposition there appeared Sullivan and two assistants, blocking public foot space with a big heavy bag, attorney William Meheula representing the 20,000 Friends of Labor, and director Tanoue, who sported a purple tie and red-rimmed eyes, and joined with ZBA Chair Ronald T. Ogomori in aiming deep frowns at Paul and her witnesses.

In his opening statement, Sullivan argued that the titanic Halekulani, built in the 1980s, opened the door to Kyo-ya’s variance. But the Halekulani was stepped back, Paul told this reporter during the break. “This is the project that would open the door to hav[ing] the shoreline recertified,” Paul said.

The hypothetical shoreline

“The shoreline, we thought, was sacred, [was] what defines Waikiki Beach,” Onishi said regarding his department’s intent in crafting the 1996 amendments. “We never changed the setback. We made sure we didn’t compromise the beach, which is the crux of the economic engine of the visitor industry,” Onishi, who subsequently served as city planning director, added. “At some point the law of diminishing returns comes into play.”

Kyo-ya, by contrast, complained that the beach in front of the Surfrider “might be as much as 180 feet wider than it is today” if the state had done the beach reconstruction it had agreed to in 1965. Further, after a beach widening that’s now underway, funded by the state DLNR and Kyo-ya, it “appears certain” that “the beach width would be increased by a minimum of 40 feet,” which could reduce the coastal setback encroachment “down to 20 feet,” Kyo-ya said in its brief.

The real shoreline

In addition to a still-considerable encroachment on a narrow beach, the problem is that the sand will continue, as it always has, to wash away. Currently, at high tide, much of the beach fronting the Surfrider complex is inundated. “I have seen hotel staff putting sandbags to keep water from entering hotels. I’ve also experienced the shadow on the shoreline [cast by hotel towers]. The beach is eroding, there’s lots of competition for space,” said petitioners’ witness Marti Townsend, who was testifying as an injured party regarding how the character of the neighborhood would be changed with a taller hotel set closer to the sea. “I learned how to swim and surf at the beach in front of the Moana,” where she now brings her own kids, Townsend said.

Despite her status as a lay witness, Townsend, who works as program director of KAHEA, was repeatedly challenged by the director, Meheula and Sullivan as to whether she was an expert in oceanography, or was giving her professional interpretation on the WSD (she is a lawyer).

“It’s my opinion that construction on the shoreline hastens the need for widening,” Townsend continued. The beach has eroded an average 1.5 feet a year since 1985, according to the state DLNR, and is vulnerable to tsunamis, as recently observed, and to sea level rise due to climate change, according to the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at UH-Manoa. “Over the years, the public will be denied access over that receded beach,” Townsend said. Because the new tower would further encroach on the beach, “I’m also concerned about lateral access–forcing beachgoers to walk out to Kalakaua [Avenue] to get to the beach through the [proposed] public access right of way,” she added.

At 3:15pm, the meeting resumed long enough for Ogomori to say that, since they only had till 4pm, and Onishi by the way was parked at a meter and worried his car would be towed, the meeting would end.

Having observed the board members’ dismissive demeanor towards Paul and her witnesses in an atmosphere heavy with a growing sense of foregone conclusion, one could not in good conscience dismiss the truism that many of Hawaii’s public servants actually see their role as serving the interests of developers.

The next hearings of petitioners’ appeal are Thurs. April 5, and April 19. Those with happy memories of Waikiki, who want the next generation to have free access to its seaside magic, are encouraged to attend.