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Keauhou plan focus of contention

Updated: 
February 7, 2014 - 7:39am

West Hawaii residents, lawmakers and the Department of Land and Natural Resources are at odds over the management of Keauhou Bay.

In particular, DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has applied for a federal permit to almost double the number of moorings at the bay and change the layout. This proposed action, according to the state agency, will remedy current moorings not federally unauthorized and addresses the need for more boat space.

While most residents agree the layout needs to change to be legal and the mooring system standardized, there’s contention about increasing the number of boats in this small bay. Concerns range from greater congestion and safety issues to access by current users, both recreational and commercial, possibly being hindered or eliminated.

Some residents say DLNR is trying to make the bay more commercial to increase monies collected, all of which go into a general pot for all the state’s harbors. For years, the public has been skeptical about how these monies are used and DLNR is criticized because fees from the island’s harbors don’t stay at those facilities. DLNR has also been accused of not gathering public input and stonewalling those interested in this mooring project.

In December, Keauhou Canoe Club filed a lawsuit seeking declaratory judgment in 3rd Circuit Court against DLNR to prevent the project from proceeding. The case remains ongoing.

Meanwhile, three West Hawaii lawmakers have introduced legislation to attempt to stop DLNR from moving forward with its plans. But not all like their proposal to make Keauhou an ocean recreation management area, or ORMA. Concerns exist about what ORMA would mean for users, including those with current permits, and if it would give DLNR even more power to do what it wants.

DLNR declined Thursday to comment on issues pertaining to Keauhou Bay because of pending litigation, said the agency’s spokeswoman Deborah Ward.

Lawmakers propose ORMA, study for bay

House Bill 2226, introduced by state Reps. Richard Creagan, Cindy Evans and Nicole Lowen, would place a moratorium on the issuance of new commercial vessel permits in Keauhou Small Boat Harbor and adjacent offshore moorings involving ocean-related activities until the boundaries of an ORMA are designated and administrative rules on recreational boating activities and commercial vessel activities are adopted.

ORMA is a region of our nearshore waters situated between two points along a coastline and extending 3,000 feet seaward of the baseline of the territorial sea. It’s intended to increase public access, reduce user conflicts and promote overall safety by separating specific uses of the area’s waters. Uses may include high speed boating, canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing, kite boarding, parasailing, scuba, snorkeling, sightseeing cruises, swimming and thrill craft operations.

Before Keauhou Bay could become an ORMA, a baseline environmental study would be required by DLNR and submitted to the Legislature prior to the end of the 2016 regular session. While state funding is unavailable for such a study, “the legislature intends to identify a funding source,” according to the bill.

In regard to permits allowed in this ORMA, HB 2226 doesn’t give a limit. This causes some residents to worry about an issuance of unlimited permits, possibly resulting in unwanted congestion. The bill does state the study will detail the areas where certain types of ocean activities are restricted or permitted; the number of permits that may be issued for different types of ocean use activities; the months, days and times certain types of activities may be curtailed or prohibited; and any other restrictions or limitations are up to DLNR. The latter point is disconcerting for residents who already distrust DLNR.

HAR 13-256-5, which pertains to ORMAs, states commercial use permits are awarded to the highest qualified bidder and are made available at public auction under sealed bid. Also, no commercial operator shall be awarded more than one commercial use permit per designated area and each permit is valid for one year, with an option to renew no more than four times. At the end of the fourth renewable period, the permit may again be offered for public auction.

That process differs from what’s currently happening. Six is now the total of commercial permits that may be issued for vessels assigned permanent mooring in Keauhou Small Boat Harbor. Permits are issued in the order received and reissued annually as long as the operation’s gross receipts are provided, fees paid and other requirements met, according to HAR Chapter 231.

Evans, D-Kohala, North Kona, said rules pertaining to the harbor, including issuing permits, will still apply to that facility while the ORMA rules will apply outside the harbor. The lines between what’s considered harbor and ORMA will need to be defined, she added.

Confusion exists about what Keauhou Bay is: a boat harbor, offshore mooring area, multiuse recreation area or something else.

Some residents say the proposal to increase and reconfigure the offshore mooring sites is just a smokescreen to conceal a larger effort to give DLNR more power to further abuse or toss out existing rules. They allege DLNR hasn’t been following rules pertaining to small boat harbors and permits in regard to Keauhou Bay for years, and HB 2226 may make the situation worse, depending on how its language is interpreted.

Evans disagreed, saying the bill’s intent is to stop DLNR from simply moving forward with its plans for the bay. Instead, she said HB 2226 forces DLNR to go through a very public process, one that helps protect everyone’s interests and requires greater input by all stakeholders, not just the current mooring users, to determine what happens at the bay now and in the future. Like there are rules to the road for various users, ORMA would do the same in this bay, she added.

After hearing “an abnormally high amount of concerns” about DLNR’s proposed mooring project, Evans said she and former state Rep. Denny Coffman looked for a solution for the bay. This bill was their solution and Creagan, who was appointed in January to the post vacated by Coffman, agreed to be the primary introducer. Evans added, all ideas are welcomed to make this bill better.

Patrick Cunningham of the Keauhou Bay Association supports having a study done, particularly if it takes into account the bay’s cultural, historical and natural resources. He said Keauhou Bay is an important multiuse community area that belongs to everyone and is not a typical harbor. He thinks DLNR is confused about its mission and seems to be focused on its interests instead of the people of Hawaii’s. He would like the bill to include the creation of a semi-autonomous group, with an elected board of directors, representing the different users, to manage the bay.

“There’s an increased impact, growing interest and shrinking resource at the bay,” Cunningham said. “DLNR can’t even take care of what we have now. DLNR needs to fix the current situation and make Keauhou Bay a viable resource before even considering taking on this mooring project.”

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha was contacted by numerous residents upset about how DLNR is managing Keauhou and its proposed plans. Many have asked him to share their concerns because they fear retaliation. He said government needs to be transparent about what it’s doing, and decisions should consider the needs and interests of all stakeholders, including the county, landowners, nonprofits and those who live in Keauhou and recreate there. He called for extra scrutiny for the bay because of its history and cultural resources — it is the birthplace of Kamehameha III.

Kanuha said he supports the bill because it forces DLNR to take a step back, allows for greater public participation, and will hopefully ensure all are on the same page on how best to use and preserve the bay now and in the future.

Kona resident Kalani Nakoa also spoke about the importance of following process.

“There are rules in place. They’re not the best rules, but it’s all we have to go by,” he said. “We follow all the rules and the administration should, too.”

HB 2226 is scheduled to be heard at 9 a.m. today by the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources &Hawaiian Affairs and Committee on Land &Water in the State Capitol’s Conference Room 325.

DLNR wants more moorings, new layout

DLNR is seeking a Department of Army permit to reconfigure the existing layout of offshore mooring sites within Keauhou Bay. The bay contains nine vessel moorings for commercial and recreational use, which are secured by 16 anchors. DLNR wants to remove and replace all mooring structures and add seven new mooring sites, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Honolulu District’s Jan. 17 public notice about the project.

Act 272 in 1991 transferred the state recreational small boat harbors and ocean recreation program from the state Department of Transportation to DLNR. This included Keauhou Small Boat Harbor and the offshore moorings. DOBOR assumed the management of these facilities and continued issuing mooring permits as in the past. Current vessel owners have installed and maintained their moorings, but DOBOR discovered none of the moorings have the required Department of Army permit, and some were within the Coast Guard channel.

The Corps is unaware of the extent of allegedly unauthorized moorings at this location and is working with the state on this issue, said Joseph Bonfiglio, the federal agency’s public affairs chief.

DOBOR also claims the moorings are in need of replacement.

“An evaluation by DOBOR of the existing mooring anchors indicates the current structure are aging, undersized or unengineered, with use of unsuitable anchorage materials such as concrete blocks, steel train wheels, manta-type anchors, coral heads, etc.,” the public notice stated. “Existing inadequate mooring anchors contribute to continued mooring slippage or failure during storm and high wave conditions and consequent damage to vessels, property and natural resources in the bay. The purpose of the proposed action is to maximize the efficient use of mooring space, improve mooring hold strength, as well as improve accessibility for both recreational and commercial boaters within the bay.”

Using a standardized offshore mooring system, there would be a total of 16 mooring sites, secured by 32 anchors. The mooring space would be for two 40-foot sailing canoes, six 30-foot vessels, three 40-foot vessels, three 50-foot vessels and two 60-foot vessels. The proposed layout would occupy the seafloor within the current boundaries of the existing mooring within the bay and wouldn’t extend beyond the current footprint. The new layout would have four mooring rows, each spaced at least 50 feet apart. Three rows would be positioned south of the Coast Guard channel of the bay and the remaining row would be north of the channel.

DOBOR also plans to remove and dispose of existing floats, mooring hardware and unsuitable materials found without the proposed mooring design area. Structures colonized by corals wouldn’t be touched. However, coral colonies that cannot be avoided will be relocated. For instance, 13 of the 32 anchor locations require coral relocation within a 5-foot radius of the anchor point.

The Corps is accepting written comments on this project and requests for a public hearing until Feb. 17. Comments should be emailed to jessie.k.paahana@usace.army.mil or mailed to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Honolulu District, Regulatory Office, Building 230, Attention: Jessie Paahana, Fort Shafter, HI 96858-5440. Include Corps file number, POH-2012-00127, with comments.

“The Honolulu District’s Regulatory Program works on several hundred permit actions each year serving as an impartial decision maker,” Bonfiglio said. “The Corps’ permit decisions weigh the rights of the property owner and regulated public against the need to protect the aquatic environment with the goal of making timely, fair and reasonable decisions in the public interest.”

Asked when the Corps might rule on the permit request, Bonfiglio said, “When the Corps has completed its evaluation of the project impacts relative to applicable statutes, the Corps will make an informed decision.”

Sea Paradise owner Richard Kersten supports removing existing mooring structures and installing a new system if it removes garbage out of the bay and improves navigation. However, he opposes adding more mooring sites, saying this very small bay can’t safely take on any more boats. He also suggested putting in a swimming lane similar to that at Kailua Bay.

Keauhou Canoe Club President Bill Armer said DLNR is trying to fast track this project to benefit seven recreational boat users under the radar of public scrutiny and participation in a $616,000 decision that affects the recreational pursuits of thousands of landowners, residents and visitors. He alleged DLNR did “deceitful scare tactics” and “stonewalling” while also holding private meetings and no public hearings.

The 600-member club opposes the project because of an inadequate survey, which doesn’t take into account low tide and water depth, as well as misrepresents the clearances in the bay and disregards the giant swells that close out the bay. The project will also have a direct impact on outrigger canoe paddling, generate adverse environmental and cultural impacts, was generated without community notice and participation in meetings, and doesn’t address the safety of current users. The relationship between Sea Engineering and DLNR should be examined for possible conflict of interest, Armer said.

The club supports the goal to standardize the mooring system and change the layout for the current nine vessels so regulations are met. But it opposes adding more mooring sites and thinks such expansion should require a thorough environmental impact study.

Armer said the club is not alone in wanting to keep the area as “unspoiled, uncluttered and noncommercialized as possible for current and future generations.” It has a petition against the project with 1,500 signatures, he added.

Kona resident Michael Flaherty said almost doubling mooring sites will have “a severe and deleterious effect” on all nonmotorized bay users.

“The hundreds of people that use the bay daily for kayaking, canoeing, swimming and snorkeling would be all but disenfranchised for the benefit of seven boat owners,” Flaherty said. “Can you imagine swimming in Honokohau Small Boat Harbor?”