Protect our coastline,” “Move the road,” and “For our keiki,” are just some of the messages displayed along the Olowalu coastline by activist group Malama Olowalu. Months after the organization helped halt the construction of a seawall project planned by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that would have seriously damaged the nearby aquatic environment, the signs are still there. This is good, because there’s still work to be done.
“Malama Olowalu is currently working on a community-based plan and will be hosting community meetings in January,” said Tiare Lawrence of Malama Olowalu. “Our goal is to get the community behind a preferred realignment and rally support ahead of time to help speed up the process.”
Malama Olowalu has been advocating for a more environmentally friendly option to this project since as early as Aug. 8 and has continued to reach out to residents and government officials to ensure everyone’s voices are heard.
The result was that DOT agreed to re-stripe the road instead of building a costly seawall and to replace the rotting guardrail behind the Jersey barriers along Honoapi‘ilani Highway, according to Albert Perez, executive director of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, which also fought the seawall project.
“They’ve gained quite a lot of space,” Perez said during a phone interview last week. “They didn’t need to do the revetment in the first place. They didn’t know that they had the room they had.”
Perez said that during Malama Olowalu’s demonstrations, he and a colleague went out during the night, when traffic was light, and measured the road. “That’s when I realized there was enough room to move the road without reconstructing it,” Perez said. “Then DOT Director Ford Fuchigami came and met with us. That was really good.”
The DOT also met with community members during a public forum held at the University of Hawaii, Maui campus Oct. 5, and the main topic of discussion was what is being done about the erosion of Honoapi‘ilani Highway.
With the effects of global warming posing a greater threat to island communities such as ourselves, as mentioned by Gov. David Ige during his opening speech at the community meeting, it is vital to take any necessary precautions that will help protect residents and visitors from the issues that will come with rising sea levels.
Originally, the state’s plan was to erect seawalls and place rock revetments along the Olowalu coastline in order to prevent further damage to the vital roadway. Similar structures have been implemented in various locations along the highway between Ukumehame and Mile Post 17, but these plans are being reevaluated after many individuals, the aforementioned organizations and legislators took a stand against the implementation of such barriers.
“We were getting contacted by concerned community members and Maui Tomorrow,” said Deputy Director of Highways for the DOT, Ed Sniffen, in a statement to MauiTime. “They contacted us with concerns about the project itself. After that, legislatures from both the county and the state started calling as well, as they were being pushed by their constituencies.”
During a breakout session at the forum, Fuchigami publicly announced that his department would restripe the highway, pushing the road inland as much as possible.
“We found that we have sufficient space within our paved right of way to provide a six foot shoulder on both sides of our highway and two 11-foot lanes,” Sniffen said. “Looking at the rates of erosion over the past five years, we’re comfortable that this gives us a minimum of three years for us to relook at this area and how we should be treating the protection of the roadway.”
The re-striping allows the state to figure out a viable long-term solution, which will eventually include realigning the road from Olowalu all the way to the end of the Pali. But Fuchigami stated that the DOT will be putting the Pali portion on the back burner and solely focusing on Olowalu for the next three years.
The DOT has canceled their contract with the construction company Goodfellow Bros. and the project is being redesigned. They’re continuing to collaborate with community leaders like Lawrence and Perez, both of whom will be sent all future drafts of project ideas to provide their input.
Lawrence, along with two other individual plaintiffs and the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, filed a lawsuit against the DOT in Environmental Court Aug. 18 to keep the seawall project from moving forward.
“There were several things that worried us,” Perez said. “One was that there had been a federal designation of critical habitats for monk seals, and that’s basically the entire West Maui coastline. But also, there are [fishermen, cultural practitioners and surfers] who use that area.”
As part of their agreement with the DOT, the plaintiffs agreed to drop their lawsuit. Perez said it’s important that everyone gained some time to evaluate the situation.
To show that the general public cares about maintenance of and accessibility to this beach, Malama Olowalu helped to organize a demonstration where local activists camped out at Olowalu in order to stall construction. Participants waved to traffic while holding signs that read, “Seawalls kill our beaches and reefs,” “Save our surf,” and many other messages such as the ones that can still be seen along the Honoapi‘ilani Highway. Lawrence said that approximately 300 people stopped by to show support, drop off food and water or just to talk story … but not everyone was happy with their presence.
“We do know that one of the contractors called the police on us and they were trying to have us removed so that they could put their equipment in the area where we were camping,” Lawrence said. “But as far as the police were concerned, they did a great job at making sure we were safe and they were great to work with. They listened to our concerns and I felt through this experience that the police, some of our elected officials, as well as many stakeholders in our community were very supportive of what we were standing there for.”
At the community meeting, Lawrence humorously thanked Fuchigami for not arresting the activists while they were camping at Olowalu and Fuchigami assured everyone that he never intended to put anyone in handcuffs.
Although they were fighting for a worthy cause, West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey said he was worried about how some community members may have been reacting to their demonstrations, which motivated him to contact Gov. Ige immediately.
“The activists caused the mother of all traffic jams,” McKelvey said. “I live in Lahaina towards the south end of town and I missed all of my appointments, including meeting with them, because the traffic was completely out of control. What worried me was it was turning the community against them and [their cause], and that alarmed me, so that’s why I acted promptly with the governor.”
On Sept. 19, after eight days of people camping out and two days after McKelvey and County Councilmember Don Couch sent separate letters to Gov. Ige expressing their concerns, Fuchigami visited the site at Olowalu and it was determined that the project would be halted until they can implement a solution that will service residents, visitors and legislatures alike.
“I know that the real work starts now, so it’s going to take a lot of community support and planning to make sure that the DOT listens to our concerns and moves the road in an area that benefits us environmentally, economically and culturally,” Lawrence said. “That’s what we’re going to work on in the next year is coming up with a solid plan that is supported by the community, the residents, the lineal descendants and the different organizations committed to protecting the environmental concerns in Olowalu.”
Sniffen said he appreciates that the community groups reached out to the DOT to come up with a solution that prioritized everyone’s needs, which include protecting both the roadway and the beach areas.
“We’re working it out all together, trying to make sure that we hit alternatives that could fulfill the number one purpose of our doing the project–that’s protecting the roadway itself to ensure that sole connection for West Maui is maintained,” Sniffen said.
At the community meeting, some residents spoke about possible solutions that they would like to see, which included extending the Lahaina Bypass and making that the state highway while allowing for Honoapi‘ilani Highway to act as a scenic road or be turned into a bike path.
“I would like the road to be realigned on the existing old cane haul road, in some areas,” Lawrence said in a statement to MauiTime. “In regards to the current road, I’d like to see a section preserved specifically for a bike path or a walking path and then the remaining I’d like to see taken out and have native Hawaiian vegetation that supports cultural replenishment in those areas, as well as park space and just allowing more area for our families to have a safe place to enjoy the ocean.”
Sniffen said that this would be possible if a new roadway is constructed that fulfills the state system’s needs because then the existing roadway would be turned over to the county, which would get to decide how it would be used.
Perez believes it’s a viable solution to do a little bit at a time, in the worst erosion spots because it will cost less and we won’t be killing our reefs, even if the road does have to meander. One especially troubling spot is near Mile Marker 14, where waves often crash over the existing seawall, splashing cars with highly corrosive salt water. “People have [also] seen monk seals try to haul themselves to the road,” Perez said.
McKelvey said that he believes the solution will need to be a combination of relocating the road, as well as restoring the natural beach and coastal areas.
“You put one wall in, then the sand erosion occurs to the beach next door, now that’s exposed to the ocean, now a wall goes in there and the sand erosion keeps going up the coast,” McKelvey said. “If we can move [the sand] back in and remove those walls, you won’t have that situation of the ocean chewing at the highway and you won’t have all the sand disappear all over again.”
Although the final project has not yet been decided upon, Sniffen said that all of the options are on the table.
“For [the realignment] to go forward, it depends on many things,” Sniffen said. “One, the environmental clearances–impacts that any realignment could have on the environment itself have to be considered. Second, the cost of any realignment has to be considered. The position of the Highways Division is I will not build any new roads until I know I have sufficient funding to maintain the ones we already have.”
For Perez, the answer is simple. “Retreat is the best option,” he said. “On Maui, we have room to retreat.”
Perez, Lawrence and McKelvey have all committed to helping the DOT find funding in order to make the road realignments possible, and they have been reaching out to stakeholders and larger organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and various fish and wildlife groups.
Regardless, everyone involved has expressed immense gratitude for the communication and cooperation that has come from all sides.
“I think it’s really significant that the director of the DOT was willing to reach out and listen to the community, even during active lawsuit,” Perez said. “I think that made all the difference and I really appreciate Ford Fuchigami for his willingness to be open and listen.”
Cover photo courtesy Malama Olowalu
Cover design: Darris Hurst