KAILUA-KONA — More than a year after plans surfaced and fizzled for a pilot program to manage surf schools at Kahaluu Bay, businesses are still in the dark about how to get permits to teach wave riding at the popular spot.
That’s because a branch of the Department of Land and Natural Resources last month abruptly issued a single permit to a local business before just as abruptly putting other applications on hold. The agency did so without explaining why it was holding up a plan that’s yet to be put in action.
“How many public meetings, how many more years does this need to go on?” asked Wesley Moore, owner of Kona Town Surf Adventures. “The DLNR needs to do what is right: Issue the permits to the applicants who applied for them and move on and enforce the permits at hand.”
Moore is one several surf school operators whose bid for a permit is now left in limbo.
With state rules limiting permits for surf instruction at the bay to just four, the recent action by the DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation leaves the question of surf school management still unresolved years after those rules were put on paper.
DOBOR confirmed it issued one permit for surf school operations at Kahaluu. The rest, the agency said, are “on hold until some issues are resolved.”
The DLNR didn’t clarify what issues are to be resolved, but said the department and DOBOR “are working very closely together to determine the most equitable distribution of commercial permits at Kahaluu Bay.”
“The county has jurisdiction over the beach park (land) and DOBOR has jurisdiction of commercial activity in the water,” DLNR said. “We hope to have resolution soon.”
The issue involves plans to get a better handle on how surf schools operate at Kahaluu Bay, where state rules prohibit commercial water sports instruction without a state permit. The DLNR can only issue up to four permits in the part of the bay designated as a “surfing zone.”
Many surf schools don’t disagree that there should be better management at a bay where one business owner estimated there are likely 10-12 operations giving lessons. But the question of how to choose who gets a permit still has yet to be resolved long after the DLNR adopted the rules in 2015.
A proposed management plan discussed at the start of 2018 outlined a pilot concessions program that would have been managed by The Kohala Center. Schools would have been selected based on a competitive bid process. It was roundly criticized at public meetings by operators who questioned the minimum $3,000-a-month bid and how management would be enforced at the bay.
The county has since scrapped that plan, according to the Department of Parks and Recreation officials.
The department added it plans to fall back on administrative rules, which require the county to certify that the business has an advanced life-saving certificate and its business license is in good standing. The county agency then affirms that certification to the DLNR, which has sole decision making authority over the issuance of permits.
As of last week, the county had received documents from five or six businesses to be sent on to DLNR.
Parks and Rec Deputy Director Maurice Messina emphasized that the county is “not the permitting authority whatsoever” and that actual issuance of permits is entirely up to the state.
So far only one business, FBI Surf School, has received a “commercial use, beaches and shores” permit for surf lessons at Kahaluu Bay from DOBOR.
Both Ossian Farmer, sole proprietor of FBI Surf School, and Moore told West Hawaii Today they kept constant contact with both the DLNR and county regarding the permits.
On Feb 5., Parks and Rec sent a communication to the DOBOR district manager transmitting surf school packets for FBI Surf School and Kona Town Surf Adventures (in that order), certifying the businesses had the required life-saving certification and authorization from the county to conduct surf instruction on the beach area under the county’s jurisdiction.
Farmer, whose permit carries an effective date of Feb. 12, said in an email that it’s important DLNR “follows through with this permit process and does regulate it as Kahaluu needs regulation for not only surf lessons but surfboard rentals as well.”
“It’s a matter of public safety,” he added.
When Moore went to pick up his permit on Feb. 22 after being told earlier that it wasn’t yet ready, he was told all permits are on hold pending an administrative decision.
The DLNR’s recent decision to halt the process now leaves Moore without a permit and without clear certainty about what’s next.
“My future and my family’s future is tied in with this surf school permit,” he said. “Because if I’m forced to go elsewhere, it essentially could put me out of my business.”
Tifani Stegehuis, general manager at Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors, said they haven’t heard anything official regarding permits. She said they only found out there was any movement through talks with other surf schools at the bay.
They reached out to Parks and Rec, which confirmed the word traveling through the bay. And once four permits were issued, they were told, that’d be it.
“And we did ask when the original notification went out, and they said because everything was already in law that there was no need for that to happen,” she said. “It did not have to be a public request whatsoever or notification.”
Right away, they submitted their documents to Parks and Rec for certification and forwarding to DLNR, and they were verbally told that they were No. 4 of the four permits.
And as with any word that permits would be going out, word of the freeze was equally absent.
“We found out again, update through the coconut wireless of our surf community down at the bay that it’s officially on hold,” she said. “But we have not received any email or written notice whatsoever that it is.”
Stegehuis said this past month was the first they had heard anything at all about surf school management, saying there had only been hearsay that something was coming around the corner.
“But again, we thought we’d get the consideration of a heads-up on a date or meeting of some sort,” she said. “Something a little more official than ‘ready, set, go.’”
And like Moore and others in the business, Stegehuis said their livelihood relies on being able to stay at Kahaluu Bay. The spot is the only bay where they operate, and there are no backup businesses or backup locations.
“That’s home for us,” she said. “That’s where we all grew up, and that’s where we are on a daily basis.”