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Are Hawaiian Resort Beaches Open to the Public?

Open to public Hawaiian Beach Resort.

With a combined 750 miles of coastline, Hawaii has the fourth-longest coast behind California, Alaska, and Florida. Accessing the coast is critical to the cultural, social, and economic life of the islands. Beach state parks are abundant on every island so families can enjoy birthday campouts and have barbeques throughout the year.

Does this mean that all Hawaiian resort beaches can be accessed by the public, or are there private beaches in Hawaii?

Let’s take a closer look at this question!

Beach Access State Policies

Shoreline in Hawaii with wooden road.

Statues related to public beach access fall under Chapter 115, which requires counties to ensure public access to “land below the high-water mark on any coastline.” This means counties must provide access for public rights-of-way to inland recreational areas, the sea, and shorelines. That means the public has access to all beaches in Hawaii, with the public beach beginning at the ocean part of the property.

While many resorts are situated directly along the coastline, they cannot restrict other tourists or the public from accessing the beach. Even those with coastal homes must allow access to the beach if the visitor is not trespassing on their property.

History of This Statute

King Kamehameha Statue in Hawaii.

In 1997, the Supreme Court of Hawaii issued a decision in the case of Public Access Shoreline Hawaii (PASH) v. the County of Hawaii County Planning Commission (known as the P.A.S.H. decision). The case was brought to the Supreme Court in 1995 when the Planning Commission denied P.A.S.H. a contested case on whether they had the customary and traditional rights to use and access specific pools within a developer’s property.

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The publication of the decision has been controversial amongst county and state agencies, community groups, and landowner groups.

The Hawaii Supreme Court revisited this statute in 2006 and issued a rule that strongly affirmed the shoreline extends to the highest wash of waves, which is the boundary between public and private property. They further rejected the use of artificially planted vegetation to set the shoreline boundary.

Victory for Developers

A warning signage for no swimming in a beach.

In 2007, Mandalay Properties Hawaii was granted a legal victory against public beach access when a federal court rules the company could restrict the public from using a road to access the 19-acre beachfront Kauai site. The court ruling favored Mandalay Properties when the County of Kauai sued the company to allow public access to the beach using the road that crosses the private property.

House Bill 1808

Signage not to enter in a jungle in Hawaii.

In 2010, Governor Lingle signed House Bill 1808 into law, which prevents private property owners from blocking beach access by cultivating or planting vegetation.

The law requires the Department of Land and Natural Resources to maintain beach corridors and prevent landowners from planting vegetation that disrupts those passages. In other words, the public should be able to walk down a beach for as far as they want, without being restricted by any obstacles, such as vegetation.

The law also established corridor access as a part of the Coast Zone Management Program, which gives notice to property owners adjacent to these passages if vegetation from their property impedes coastline access. The department was also granted the authority to take further action if the property owner doesn’t resolve the issue within 21-days.

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Modern Controversy

Coastal development and Island in Hawaii.

More recently, controversy has erupted with a focus on the ongoing loss of statewide beaches by coastal development that’s taking place too close to the ocean. One of the greatest concerns is the use of induced vegetation and surveyors attempting to manipulate the shoreline further inland to justify constructing resorts, condos, apartments, and homes closer to the ocean. The purpose is to block public access and invade public beaches.

From an environmental perspective, geologists are concerned with the eventual erosion and beach loss altogether, which will be detrimental to the landowner and public. Per coastal geologists, one-third of Maui’s beaches and one-fourth of Oahu’s beaches have been lost, mostly due to close development to the ocean.

Legal Resources

Given the technicalities of these coastline laws, finding detailed information has been a challenge. However, a new resource created by the University of Hawaii Sea Grant called Coastal Access in Hawaii addresses the most updated and accurate information regarding coastal access policies and laws. An additional legal resource is Beach Access Hawaii, which offers a wealth of information surrounding specific beach access points, frequently asked questions, and the latest news around Hawaii beaches.

FAQs

Q: What criteria exist for public rights-of-way?

A: Public right of access along coastlines and beaches must be below the “upper reaches of the wash of waves.”

Q: Are there county policies for public beach access?

A: In addition to the aforementioned state statutes, all counties have varying public beach access ordinances. Each county must maintain and develop public access along and to the coastline.

  • Kauai – required width of 10 feet with public access intervals varying based on local zoning, but no larger than 1500 feet.
  • Hawaii – maintains a standard of 10 feet with access intervals ranging from 800 to 2500 feet.
  • Oahu – required width is 12 feet with intervals of no less than ¼ mile in urban areas and ½ mile in rural areas.
  • Maui – public access intervals must be a minimum width of 15 feet and cannot have intervals larger than 1500 feet.
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Q: Does the right of beach access include the right of transit along the coastline?

A: Yes, the Department of Land and Natural Resources must maintain access along beach transit strips but require property owners to ensure the corridors are made passable and free from human-induced, unmaintained, or enhanced vegetation that interferes with these passages.

To answer the original question, the only private beach in Hawaii is from Mandalay Properties due to being built in an area that satisfies the law, but only has one road to access the beach, which is owned by the property. All other beaches in Hawaii are open and must be accessible to the public, based on the law.

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