Beach vehicle access laws questioned

LIHUE — Some government officials are calling for more public awareness on rules regarding motor vehicle access to Kauai beaches.

Others say cars and trucks on the sand pose environmental and public safety hazards.

“I have seen more than 100 cars in the inner tidal zone areas,” said Don Heacock, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources Kauai District. “We need to stand back and say, ‘Why are people driving on the beach?’”

Kauai allows motor vehicle access on certain beaches to transport people and supplies for picnicking, fishing, camping or swimming. Vehicles are allowed only on designated roads, trails and tracks, may not be left unattended or block entry and must park off the beach after unloading.

“Kauai is unique as the only county to allow vehicle access,” said Francis Mission, Kauai supervisor for the state DLNR, Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement. “But, the rules do say they must drive back off of the beach.”

State, county responsibilities

The jurisdiction of a violation on unencumbered state lands is a place-based issue, Mission said, and it depends on where the vehicle sits when a violation is committed. A thorough analysis of each beach would help determine what entity has jurisdiction and how it is enforced.

Though Hanalei Beach is under state jurisdiction, the county manages it to the “mean low-water mark” in front of Black Pot Beach Park, Mission said. Vehicles park along the water’s edge here, while a separate county order manages Hanalei Bay, Waioli Beach Park and Hanalei Pavilion Beach Park down to the “high wash of the waves,” where vegetation meets the seasonal high tide — below which is DOCARE enforced to the shoreline.

Lydgate, Kealia and Westside beach areas are defined as state unencumbered public lands. The high wash varies from beach to beach, and can include a wide strip to a tiny sliver of sand, or even down to the water line.

“Jurisdiction also depends on what the conditions are at the beach,” Mission said.

State beaches, and beaches set aside by executive order to the county, both include prohibitions on driving, he said. State and county ordinances differ and enforcement varies, he said.

The county is responsible all the way to the ocean at county parks where the boundaries skirt from a state to a city management area and to the main low water mark. Wherever the executive order stops short of that mark the county has responsibility, he added.

Counties have the authority and duty to develop and maintain public access to and along the shorelines under state law, he said. The state’s role is to protect shoreline and coastal resources within the conservation district and support public access along and below the shoreline.

Vehicle access to unencumbered lands and state parks include adjacent beaches such as Polihale State Park. It is public property up to the high-water mark.

Driving along Polihale is allowed as a traditional place where it is customary to allow launching of canoes and small boats. The lack of a designated roadway or access point leaves no ordinance in effect, according to Mission.

“DLNR is in the process of designating a roadway for that particular activity, while barring all other driving activity,” he said.

Possible regulations

State Rep. Dee Morikawa, who represents Kauai’s Westside, said she is an avid angler, and appreciates firsthand what is involved with hauling gear for a mile or more along the lengthy and remote Westside beaches. She supports more local input and authority on regulations and vehicles access areas.

“It’s not easy to access fishing and surfing areas from Kekaha to Polihale,” Morikawa said. “I would like to see a permit system similar to A&B or PMRF, where you can drive only if you have a vehicle permit and have taken some kind of education class.”

The problem with a ‘one-bill-fits-all’ beach ordinance is that the needs vary for each island county, she said. West Kauai has lengthy beaches and no access points and this necessitates driving.

County Council Chair Jay Furfaro said the county has little jurisdiction below the high water mark, where oversight remains with the DLNR. He said part of the solution would be to give existing regulations more muscle by delegating some policing powers to the lifeguards, fire department staff and county park rangers.

“From a county position, we should be equally involved with environmental concerns when fuel and oil is dripping and damaging the shorelines and sea life,” Furfaro said. “Vehicles traveling on beaches also pose a safety issue for beach pedestrians.”

As for vehicles contributing to erosion and chemical contamination, Mission said there are no studies to indicate impact. He said there is a need to balance access with attention to environmental and cultural resources.

“A lot of people are concerned,” Mission said.

Impact on environment

The county has enacted strict regulations on permitting commercial weddings on Kauai beaches. Protecting wedding parties from seasonally high waves was one rationale, while another was to minimize the impact to the environment by limiting materials, equipment, locations and duration of events.

Ruby Pap, a Coastal Land Use Extension agent with the University of Hawaii Sea Grant college program on Kauai, said she encourages regulation of vehicle access points and boardwalks over dunes.

“Even walking on dunes is detrimental, so imagine what a vehicle will do,” Pap said. “It is a habitat for flora and fauna and, to a certain extent, a biological habitat. If we do not control the access points to beaches then people will drive wherever they can to get through and that definitely damages those resources.”

About 70 percent of Kauai’s beaches have been in a state of erosion since 1926, and is a natural process that is recorded in annual shoreline setback reports.

The report data helps to establish beach nourishment programs to help rebuild dunes by replacing vegetation, Pap said. This helps recover sand that is lost during cycles of erosion and accretion from shoreline development.

“Our beaches are very valuable resources and there is a very limited sand supply,” she said.

Wailua Beach was once covered with Morning Glory vine, said Don Heacock, an aquatic biologist with the DLNR Kauai District. It was trampled by people and vehicles and the loss makes the areas more prone to erosion, he said.

As a possible solution for remote beaches, Heacock encourages input from groups to identify permanent access points where kupuna fishermen prefer to launch small boats. Parking points could be identified back from the shoreline high water mark in remote areas to allow a reasonable walk without a need to drive on the beach, he said.

State law specifically states that a violation occurs when “driving a motor vehicle back and forth or racing on a beach.” Most vehicles are doing just that and have no business on the beach, and its time to encourage Kauai to follow Neighbor islands, American Samoa and Fiji with tougher laws protecting beaches, Heacock said.

Trucks and all terrain vehicles present a biohazard with leaking fluids, and a danger to turtles, hatchlings, tiny marine anthropoids, ohiki crabs and fragile shoreline plants, according to Heacock.

“This is a natural resource issue as well as human health and safety,” Heacock said. “Now is the time for the county and the state to work on amending the law and taking the loopholes out.”

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0424 or by emailing tlaventure@thegardenisland.com.

Change 7, to 70 percent, of Kauai’s beaches have been in a state of erosion since 1926.

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