Maui County has issued a warning and told Lanai Resorts, the company owned by billionaire Larry Ellison, to stop blocking access to Hulopoe Beach Park or risk a $100,000 fine, plus an additional $10,000 for each day it is not processed.
In Hawaii, it is illegal for private landowners to prevent people from traveling through public access roads to the shores. But in late July, Lanai Resorts closed its metal gate on the road to Hulopoe Beach Park, even though it is required to be kept open 24/7, according to county documents. The only exceptions are during severe weather events or government-ordered emergency closures, such as when beach parks were closed during the pandemic.
“We have information that the park was closed during times when there were no severe weather emergencies or emergency proclamations requiring the park to be closed,” the county planning department wrote in a statement. August 1 letter to the company.
Although the beach itself, like all other shores in Hawaii, is public, Lanai Resorts owns the gate and adjacent park. Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, owns 98% of the island, which he bought in 2012 for a grossed $300 million.
A representative for Pulama Lanai, which is the Lanai Resorts corporate entity that manages the private land, said the company closed the gate to deal with flooding that submerged parts of the park following July’s historic southerly swell, which hit coasts across the state. Vehicles were barred from entering, but pedestrians could still access the beach park by bypassing the gate, which was reopened on July 28, according to the company.
But Russell deJetley, the resident who filed the complaint against the company, said the gate remained closed, even after the flooding in the beach car park subsided. At the same time, large boulders lining the road next to the gate prevented anyone in a wheelchair from entering the park while the gate blocked the road.
“As a disabled Hawaiian veteran, I just felt like it was a slap in the face,” said deJetley, who has a neurological condition that sometimes requires him to rely on a motor scooter. mobility, a walker or a cane to get around.
Hulopoe Beach Park is nestled along the south shore of Lanai, within walking distance of Manele Marina. It’s been a favorite spot of locals for decades, a place where generations of families have come to barbecue, camp, and enjoy the water. In the 1980s, before the nearby resort was built, the developer struck a deal with residents, promising that the beach park would always be for the public.
Early in the pandemic, when governments ordered beaches closed across the state, Lanai’s largest landowner began blocking access with barricades, deJetley said. In late 2020, the company applied to the county, which regulates development in coastal communities, for permission to put up a gate. The county agreed, as long as the gate remained open day and night, except in an emergency.
Then this summer, the gate remained closed for more than a week after the historic southern swell dissipated, deJetley said. On July 26, he emailed the company about it. Having received no response, he filed a complaint.
“As of today, the beach park is open,” deJetley said. “However, this will probably not be the end.”
In Hawaii, the right of citizens to access the shores has been protected for generations. In 1840, Hawaii’s first constitution established the norm that while all property was owned by the crown, it did not operate as private property; instead, it belonged to the public, said Richard Wallsgrove, a professor of environmental law at the University of Hawaii.
Nearly two centuries later, this concept is still entrenched in Hawaii’s state laws and constitution. A number of court rulings have affirmed the public’s right to access beaches and shorelines up to “the upper reaches of the lapping of the waves”.
“This story is not something you can rewrite just because you decide you don’t want people accessing the beach in front of your plot,” Wallsgrove said.
But in recent decades, as Hawaii’s shores have sprung up with luxury resorts and estates, clashes between private landowners and the public have intensified.
And it may only be a matter of time before tensions rise, as communities grapple with the effects of climate change, rising sea levels and receding coastlines that seeping into private property, Wallsgrove said.
There are also other man-made threats to resident access, such as lack of beach parking, physical structures like gates, and even lack of investment in proactive enforcement to protect that access.
“Managing our resources in a way that makes sense for current and future generations is a lot of work,” Wallsgrove said. “And if we’re not going to put the resources into it now, we’ll pay the price in the future.”
Instead, the onus often falls on private citizens, like deJetley, to record and report barriers to access, said Lauren Blickley of the Surfrider Foundation, which works to protect beaches and oceans. Until there are more resources in the future, she said residents who want protect access to the beach should continue to document issues with photos and videos to submit to county and post on social media.
“We have to be very aware as a community,” Blickley said. “And we must continue to fight to secure long-term access to our shores.”
Coverage of Maui County by Civil Beat is funded in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.
Read the county’s warning letter below.