Beach access: PMRF — Case and Baptiste discuss PMRF access issues with base commander

In response to a community outcry over the lack of access to the beaches at Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kaua‘i’s Congressman Ed Case, Mayor Bryan Baptiste and Captain Robert J. Connelly, USN, Commander of PMRF have been in contact within the past week to work together in opening up the base more for public recreation.

Connelly met with Baptiste yesterday to discuss ways that the base can be further opened up to the public, such as opening a surfing beach known as Major’s Bay seven days a week, instead of the current four days.

“I wanted to seek his counsel,” said Connelly, “to try to understand community concerns.”

“Part of my discussion with the mayor was to examine the potential to expand access at Major’s Bay to seven days a week,” he said. “It is under serious consideration.”

Case believes that this is but a first step in allowing more access to the coastline of the Westside along Barking Sands Beach.

“It is probably unrealistic that PMRF will return to the unrestricted days prior to 9/11,” Case said in a phone interview.

However, he said, gaining more access to the base for the public is one of his goals. “Our immediate focus is Major’s Bay. Figure out how, in particular, surfers can use the area more to their benefit,” he said. “Captain Connelly is walking through that internally. He is committed to meeting with community leaders and our elected officials. If we can make Major’s work, there is a potential with other sites, such as fishing areas. They are trying to take the issues in the order of priority,” and Major’s Bay is at the top of the list, he said.

Case called on Connelly on Tuesday, he said, in response to community concerns raised at Case’s “talk story meeting” held Thursday, August 28, in Kekaha.

“Since my arrival, beach access has captured the attention of the community and put the leadership of PMRF” on notice on what it can do to be a good neighbor, Connelly said.

“We must consider the delicate balance which exists between security and safety of PMRF and its employees, and the public’s desire for, and right to, beach access. To make the best decisions for all parties involved, we must enter into solution-based discussion. I will be meeting with representatives this afternoon to discuss this very issue,” said Baptiste in an e-mail sent to The Garden Island on Thursday.

“I share the concerns of many Kaua’i residents regarding beach and mountain access, and am committed to working with the community to address the island’s access issues,” Baptiste added. “But we still need a planned approach.”

Beach Access Confusion

For years, Kaua‘i residents could drive the 12-mile-long beach stretching from Polihale to Kekaha. Residents used the beach fronting PMRF for surfing, fishing, camping, and other recreational activities.

Then, due to the need for higher security after September 11, Navy personnel put telephone poles in the sand, blocking access to many of west Kaua‘i’s favorite surf and fishing spots. The base was re-opened to the public on July 20, 2002, but Kaua‘i residents have had to get passes issued by PMRF and the Kaua’i Police Department.

Recently, beach access has shrunk considerably, said Ross Barker, owner of Dr. Dings surf shop in Hanapepe. He attended the recent Ka Leo O Kaua‘i meeting at Kekaha, he said, when the closure of Kinikini and Family Housings surf spots “were presented as facts” to the audience. Also it was said that the ocean from the beach to two miles offshore had been restricted to boats from Kekaha to the Na Pali coast, he said.

“They are taking access (down) from three surf spots to one,” said Barker.

Yet, according to the Navy spokesperson for PMRF, beach access is the same as it has been for the past year. “The rules for beach access have not changed,” said Agnes Tauyan, Deputy Public Affairs Officer, Commander Navy Region Hawai‘i.

What has been done, was the clarification of the rules regarding access to the base, in response to a request from the public, said Lt. Commander Jane Campbell, the Navy’s top public relations officer based on O‘ahu.

“Folks can still surf off of the housing area,” said Connelly, “as long as they remain in the water.”

Connelly added that people who leave the water in front of base housing must walk directly back to Majors’ along the shoreline.

Kinikini is continued off-limits to the public because of its proximity to the runway, he said.

Two-mile “buffer zone”

Few residents had heard of the no-anchor zone until the Ka Leo O Kauai meeting or when they had renewed their passes and received the clarification of rules from the base. Even some boat captains, who traverse the area daily, have not heard of the plan.

Aalona DelaCruz, a boat captain for Na Pali Explorer out of the Westside, has fished off the base and dove for lobster out there since he was a child. He, too, had heard little about the two-mile buffer.

He said, while on his way on the tour boat to Na Pali, he contacts the base to let them know of his approach, and that his action is a “courtesy” so that he knows when he can enter and exit the area without disrupting military exercises. But as for not anchoring off the coast, he had heard nothing, and said that he would be upset by the rule, since he would not be able to dive where he has for decades.

According to the rules handed out to beach pass holders, “Boats, fishing vessels, etc. must remain a minimum of two miles offshore.”

However, Congressman Case said that the water off the base is not the jurisdiction of the Navy, but the United States Coast Guard.

“After 9/11, The Navy requested the Coast Guard form a two-mile buffer from the base,” Campbell said, but that this “is a restricted area only during heightened threat.”

Kinikini Point is still off-limits to boaters because of safety precautions around the runway, Connelly said, but boats are allowed to fish off PMRF.

Asked why this restriction had not been in force for years, Connelly said, “Post 9/11, we are approaching safety and security differently.”

Case, in response to the concerns of local commercial fishermen, has discussed the ocean fronting PMRF at length with Connelly. He said that the two-mile zone is not a rule, but “a starting point for discussion.”

He said that there have been meetings between County, Coast Guard and PMRF officials about the buffer, but that it would be enforced on a need basis. “We’re not talking about total blanket, but during heightened security or training missions,” a buffer zone to protect the public and the base.

“What the PMRF wants to do is have more of a say” on the waters fronting the base, said Case. Since “the waters off PMRF are under the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard,” not the Navy, PMRF would like to be able to close the waters at their discretion, in times of unusual activity, said Case.

“They want direct input into what happens” out there, he said.

The future of beach access

“We fully recognize the unique small town atmosphere of Kaua‘i,” said Campbell. “The fact that we’re” allowing access at all “is very unique. We know it’s a two-way street. We’re trying to balance a need for security” and respect for local access, she said.

“The base needs to maintain a level of security that anyone who enters feels safe,” Campbell said.

However, some local residents see the present situation at PMRF as difficult and getting worse.

Barker believes that the new “clarification” is a sign that the Navy would rather close the base off from the public completely.

“A lot of us believe that they want to completely close us out,” he said. “I believe that’s what the new base commander wants. They would find it a lot more convenient if the public was not around.”

He added that he has no desire to go on the base itself. “For surfers, the issue is not the base, but the beach,” and for fishermen as well.

Congressman Case has continually highlighted the need for the base.

“I do support the continued existence of PMRF and its responsible expansion. It’s good for our country, it’s good for our state, it’s good for Kaua‘i, and it’s good for the island’s economy,” he said. “I believe that the military is trying to be a good neighbor. They continue to assist the community in other efforts,” such as education with Kaua‘i Community College and financially through their support of civilian contractors who work on the base.

Case went on to stress the importance of maintaining the relationship between the public and officials at PMRF. “It has to be responsible to the community and to the elected officials.”

To facilitate this, he said, “I encouraged the Captain to keep talking to the community.”

Mayor Baptiste pledged his help to open more beach access, through discussion with the public and those on the base.

“I will continue to work with individual communities through my Ka Leo O Kaua’i program to identify and address community-specific access issues. I once again pledge my commitment to the promotion of additional beach and mountain access, and I look forward to community participating in helping to create the focus necessary to move forward,” the mayor said.

“I am trying to seek a balance with the community needs and between the security of facilities and the safety of visitors on the base,” Connelly said.

Double Standard?

However, while the public is restricted to Major’s Bay, the Navy, according to text found on PMRF’s Web site, www.pmrf.navy.mil, continues to advertise to Department of Defense personnel the luxurious stretch of beach it now controls.

While extolling the virtues of its cottages, the Web site explains their location:

“PMRF is an Isolated and Remote Command. And this contributes significantly to the uniqueness of our cottages. Few places provide both modern facilities and the opportunity to walk a 7 1/2 mile stretch of beach almost exclusively. Our cottages offer a ‘front row seat’ to a beautiful view of Ni‘ihau, humpback whale migration (in season) and some of the most awesome sunsets in the world. These are just some of the reasons many visitors return annually and some even have the opportunity to make PMRF a memorable stop in a progression of duty stations. I sincerely hope you have the opportunity to join us on your next vacation.”

Campbell said that personnel and their guests do have more access than the general public, but that this is the way bases are in other places, such as Pearl Harbor.

“Anyone who stays in those facilities are part of the Department of Defense,” said Campbell. “The open area is Major’s Bay. The housing area is for personnel. And the area beyond housing is for MWR (Morale Welfare, and Recreation) authorized guests.”

Staff writer Tom Finnegan can be reached at 245-3681 x. 226.

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