This article was produced in partnership with Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which was a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network in 2020.
Real estate owners who sell homes, hotels, condos, and businesses along the Hawaiian coast should indicate if the properties are susceptible to damage from sea level rise under the legislation that should enter into force next May.
While the risks of building and maintaining properties along the state’s coast have been evident for decades, state lawmakers passed the measure this year to ensure potential buyers are fully aware of these risks, which will only increase as the state’s coasts are increasingly battered by more severe floods and storms.
“This is to make sure that if people buy our waterfront properties, they are well aware of what the downside could be in the future,” said Senator Gil Keith-Agaran, D-Wailuku, who has introduced the bill, which will become law this month.
The action follows an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica which found that homeowners routinely sold oceanfront homes in Oahu that were about to be damaged or sucked into the ocean and were reaching record prices in the process. To protect their properties – and sometimes to put them up for sale – dozens of homeowners have circumvented Hawaii’s environmental laws by obtaining state emergency exemptions to install large mounds of sandbags and drape heavy tarps along the state’s public beaches.
Emergency structures are only supposed to stay in place temporarily, but the state has granted repeated extensions and in some cases lost track of approvals, news outlets have found. The exemptions, one of a series of environmental loopholes investigated by Star-Advertiser and ProPublica, have fueled development along sensitive coastlines and accelerated erosion of Hawaii’s renowned beaches, which are disappearing at an alarming rate.
On Oahu’s famed north coast, about a third of homes that received emergency approvals from 2018 were subsequently sold or put up for sale. Some buyers said they were unaware the permits were going to expire.
State law already requires that a seller disclose all “material facts” about their property, including any conditions that may affect its value in the future. The new law requires sellers to specifically indicate whether a property is located in an area that is expected to be affected by sea level rise by mid-century, based on maps developed by scientists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Detailed maps, searchable by lot number, provide flood and coastal erosion risk analysis for individual properties based on different sea level rise projections.
Similar real estate disclosure bills have failed in the past in the face of opposition from the real estate industry, but state lawmakers and environmental groups say they redoubled their efforts after the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported emergency exemptions for sandbags. Environmental groups, including the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club, have seen the legislation as a way to help reduce new environmental exemptions. Buyers, they said, would have a harder time getting state approval for emergency sandbags, for example, if they were officially warned about the risks of coastal life in advance.
According to scientists, sandbags pose an existential threat to Hawaiian beaches in the same way as seawalls. When waves hit a hard shore, they pull sand into the ocean with no way to replenish it, causing beaches to drown. Seawalls have contributed to the loss of about a quarter of the beaches on Oahu, Maui, and Kauai, and local scientists have warned the state would only be a handful of healthy beaches if owners don’t begin to shed withdraw from the coastline. .
The overall impact of sea level rise on Hawaii’s coastal properties is expected to be vast. Statewide, 6,500 structures along riverbanks, including homes, hotels, shopping malls, schools, churches and community centers, are expected to be damaged or destroyed by 3.2 feet of elevation sea level rise, which could occur by 2060, according to the Hawai’i Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report, released in December 2017. An estimated 20,000 residents will be moved. The damaged structures and the 25,800 acres expected to be flooded are valued at $ 19 billion.
Keith-Agaran said the legislature allocated funds this year to relocate interior portions of the highway that runs along Oahu’s north coast. “At the end of the day, I think what has to happen is that the government has to serve as an example and a leader and roll back infrastructure and roads,” he said.
The Legislature also passed a bill this year that requires state agencies to identify existing and planned public facilities that are vulnerable to increased flooding and more powerful storms associated with climate change, and to assess options such as flood protection or relocating buildings and infrastructure inland.
More aggressive measures that sought to curb emergency shoreline approvals and limit easements for old dikes died this year after Hawaii Island Senator Lorraine Inouye refused to hear them. Inouye, chair of the Senate Water and Lands Committee, said she wanted more time to work with the Hawaii Department of Lands and Natural Resources, which is responsible for protecting the state’s beaches, on potential fixes to Hawaii laws and policies.
One of those measures would have set a strict three-year deadline after landowners are granted a permit to remove emergency sandbags and what are known as burritos: heavy, black material anchored by tubes filled with sand. Representative David Tarnas, D-Waimea, who chairs the House Water and Land Committee, said after the suspension of measures he plans to push for the legislation again next year if the state does not impose limits to emergency approvals. Tarnas said there was too much pressure from the public and within the legislature not to act.
Officials from the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources said in December that they would work to resolve the issue by changing business rules that allow emergency approvals, but still did not indicate the changes being considered.
Sam Lemmo, who oversees the department’s Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, said via email that proposed revisions to the rules are expected to be released this summer. They will have to be approved by the board of directors which oversees the department.
Meanwhile, sandbags and emergency burritos continue to dot the north coast of Oahu, many with permits that have expired or are about to expire this summer. The Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands said in February that its latest tally showed 44 properties had the protections installed, either legally or illegally. However, Lemmo said he could not provide the media with this list, an earlier version of which was previously public, as it is now considered an “enforcement tool.”
Lemmo declined to say whether the state intends to force landowners to withdraw their burritos or fine them for not doing so, but said the state would soon correspond with landowners who have the temporary emergency structures. He told the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica the same in December after news agencies reported the Côte-Nord exemptions. Several licensed burritos were due to expire in January.
“I apologize for the lack of detailed answers, but my team is at the heart of it all,” Lemmo said last week. “We cannot comment publicly until we have carried out our actions publicly. “