Surf school regulations move forward

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Visitors learn to surf at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
Visitors learn to surf at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
Visitors learn to surf at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
Visitors learn to surf at Kahaluu Beach. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — The Kohala Center is moving forward again with plans to limit surf school operations at Kahaluu Bay, but local business owners say they still aren’t satisfied with what the nonprofit has planned for the popular surf spot, taking issues with fundamental components of the proposed management program.

Cindi Punihaole, director of the Kahaluu Bay Education Center, a project of The Kohala Center, meanwhile said the organization doesn’t plan to hold any more meetings before the new bid submission deadline of March 27 at 2 p.m.

The Kohala Center was selected through a separate bid process to manage a program that would limit surf school operations at the bay to just four businesses. The concessionaires will be selected through a competitive bidding process. The new deadline comes after the county postponed an earlier Feb. 20 deadline following strong pushback to the original proposal.

And while an addendum released Monday addresses some of the concerns raised, it doesn’t change the fundamental problems some had with the proposal — specifically limiting use of the bay and charging surf schools a minimum $3,000 a month to do business there.

“A lot of us still cannot afford that,” said Wesley Moore, owner of Kona Town Surf Adventures.

Moore said he understands the need for some sort of regulation at Kahaluu, but has strong reservations about how the program and fee would impact small businesses like his own.

Punihaole said they’re looking at the program as a pilot project with a six-month timeline. In her view, the important thing is to get a program off the ground and make adjustments as it goes along.

“So it would be like a work in progress,” she said.

As a pilot program, she said, the fundamentals will remain the same: four surf schools will be permitted to operate at the bay with a minimum monthly fee of $3,000.

But for some local surf schools, those fundamentals are also the fundamental problem with the proposal.

Capt. Rick Green, who has been the sole owner of Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors for the past 20 years, said any proposal that restricts businesses from using the water is a nonstarter, saying The Kohala Center was monopolizing the bay by implementing a limit.

Green said his big concern is making sure businesses operating at the bay are properly licensed and certified, something he said has never been enforced.

He said there were many good alternative ideas brought up from the community, including one from the Hawaii Fire Department’s ocean safety division captain, who suggested grandfathering all surf schools already in business and granting a permit to those actively running schools.

An owner would lose the permit if they didn’t pass the business on to a direct descendant, thereby reducing surf school activity at the bay over time.

The idea received much applause at a community meeting, but Green said it seems like it went completely ignored, which he said was like “a slap in the face.”

Under its agreement with the county, The Kohala Center is required to create and manage an advisory board, which Punihaole said would oversee the program and make adjustments along the way, rather than waiting until the six months are up.

Punihaole said she would like the advisory board to meet once a month or as needed.

She also wants to use the six-month period to create standard operating procedures, “so at the end of six months, you already have a foundation built.”

Over a course of a year and assuming each of the four permitted surf schools was paying the minimum $3,000 a month, the monthly fees would generate $144,000 for the program, which Punihaole said was the minimum budget she could develop for the program.

Under the program, the fees would pay for a full-time and part-time education ranger as well as a supervisor. That, she said, is the minimum needed to have someone at the beach throughout the week.

But Moore said any plan that forces surf schools to put up $3,000 a month is “taking a good chunk of change out of local businesses.”

“I want to see something done,” he said, “but not at the expense of the surf schools.”

The $3,000 monthly fee, which is merely the minimum bid to even be considered as a concessionaire, would already be a burden on his business, and the effect would be compounded in the off season.

“You’re asking small, local businesses to pay $3,000 a month, when there’s months we don’t even make that,” Moore said.

Green agreed.

“They want a portion of my business and I receive nothing in return,” he said.

The education rangers wouldn’t have enforcement authority, but would be able to ensure rules are being followed. If an unpermitted school is found operating, Punihaole said for example, a ranger could advise the school about the rules and the school could take its classes elsewhere.

She noted the Hawaii Police Department and Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement branch both have a presence on the advisory board, giving the program a direct conduit to law enforcement.

While the program itself will be changing and evolving, Punihaole said she wants the surf schools to be confident that they are getting what they are paying for.

“If the surf schools are going to pay,” she said, “they should expect the best service.”

And if she finds a better way to accomplish the program’s goals or a way to do it with less manpower, she’ll pursue it.

Green said he doesn’t plan to take part in the bid, saying he plans to present a petition with more than 1,500 signatures to the mayor and local officials.

That petition urges the county to cancel the concessions program.

Moore meanwhile said he’s still on the fence about submitting a bid.