State of the Beach/State Reports/HI/Beach Access

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The primary Hawaii statutes relating to public beach access include Chapter 115, Public Access to Coastal and Inland Recreational Areas and HRS 205A-2, Coastal zone management program; objectives and policies. Also, Section 46-6.5, Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS), requires that the counties, in the subdivision process, ensure public access to "land below the high-water mark on any coastal shoreline." When the provisions of Section 46-6.5, HRS, are not applicable, Section 115-2, HRS, mandates that the counties acquire such access "for public rights-of-way to the shorelines, the sea, and inland recreational areas." In addition, Section 115-7, HRS, allows for State and county "co-sponsorship" of acquisitions for public access.

All beaches are publicly owned and/or controlled in Hawaii. However, the public beach begins at the seaward extent of the property boundary.

Hawaii's 1997 CZM Assessment reported that on August 31, 1995, the Supreme Court of Hawaii issued its decision in Public Access Shoreline Hawaii (PASH) v. County of Hawaii County Planning Commission, commonly known as the "P.A.S.H. decision." The litigation arose when the Planning Commission denied the plaintiffs a contested case hearing on whether they had traditional and customary rights to access and use of certain anchialine pools situated within the developer's property. At its core, the decision established that the plaintiffs had standing to present evidence before the Planning Commission with respect to their rights to exercise traditional and customary practices. The opinion, however, also commented on many aspects of the scope and nature of the constitutional and statutory access and gathering rights guaranteed to Native Hawaiians. Since its publication the opinion has been highly controversial and the source of numerous articles, seminars, letters to the editor, and other public discussions. Resolution of the issues raised by the opinion has been expressed as a significant concern by state and county agencies, private landowner groups, and community groups.

In October 2006, the Hawai`i Supreme Court issued a ruling strongly reaffirming that the shoreline in Hawai`i, which marks the boundary between public beach and private land, extends to the highest wash of the waves, and rejecting the use of artificially planted vegetation to determine the shoreline. The case on appeal, Diamond v. State, involved a challenge by North Shore Kaua`i residents Caren Diamond and her attorney, Harold Bronstein, of the decision of the Chairperson of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to certify the shoreline of a lot on Kaua`i's North Shore based on vegetation the landowner planted and propagated to create a false shoreline further makai (seaward).

The court, in a unanimous decision, reversed the state's shoreline certification and held that the shoreline should be established "at the highest reach of the highest wash of the waves." The court also clarified the role of the "vegetation line" and "debris line" as indicators of the shoreline. Contrary to the state's and landowner's interpretation of legal precedent, the court ruled that the vegetation line trumps the debris line only when the vegetation line lies "more mauka" (inland) than the debris line and furthers the public policy of extending to public ownership and use "as much of Hawaii's shoreline as is reasonably possible."

The court also ruled that the state erred in using artificially planted and propagated vegetation to determine the vegetation line based on the reasoning that the vegetation survived more than a year. The court cited the public policy of protecting and extending public shoreline resources and uses and emphatically "reject[ed] attempts by landowners to evade this policy by artificial extensions of the vegetation lines on their properties."

The court's decision follows on the heels of the state's June 2006 amendment of agency rules, to remove any preference for the vegetation line over the debris line in the determination of shorelines, an issue first raised years ago by Diamond and Bronstein in their challenges to the location of certified shorelines.

In a decision that strongly reaffirms beaches as a public trust resource, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in January 2014 that the state must consider historical evidence when determining the shoreline. The opinion also reiterates the high court's 2006 ruling that vegetation may not be planted to manipulate the shoreline, which becomes the starting line for a building setback. More on this.

In recent years, intensifying public controversy has focused on the ongoing loss of beaches statewide caused by coastal development too close to the ocean. One of the leading concerns is the widespread use of induced vegetation by landowners and surveyors to manipulate the shoreline further makai and to justify building closer to the ocean. This not only invades public beach and blocks public access, but also paves the way to the eventual erosion and loss of the beach, ironically to the detriment of the landowner as well as the public. According to coastal geologists, one-fourth of Oahu's beaches and one-third of Maui's beaches have already been lost, largely because of development too close to the ocean.

In a legal victory for Mandalay Properties Hawaii and against public beach access announced in February 2007, a federal court ruled that the company will be able to continue restricting the public from using an access road to its 19-acre beachfront site on Kauai. The court ruling favored the company over the County of Kauai, which had sued to allow public access to the Papaa Beach from the road across the property, known as Widemann Reservation.

The Land Division of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources is responsible for managing state-owned lands in ways that will promote the social, environmental, and economic well-being of Hawaii's people, and for insuring that these lands are used in accordance with the goals, policies, and plans of the state. Lands that are not set aside for use by other government agencies come within the direct purview of the division. These lands are made available to the public through fee sales, leases, licenses, grants of easement, rights-of-entry, month-to-month tenancies, or are kept as open space area. Where acquisitions of privately owned lands or lands owned by other government entities are required by the state for public purposes, the division is responsible for acquiring these lands through negotiations, condemnations or land exchanges. Besides maintaining a comprehensive inventory of all state-owned lands, the division serves as an office of record and maintains a central repository of all government documents dating back to the Great Mahele of 1848.

In June 2010 Governor Lingle signed into law House Bill 1808, a bill that prevents private property owners from blocking shoreline access by planting or cultivating vegetation. The bill, now Act 160, was introduced by Rep. Hermina Morita (District 14 – Hanalei, Anahola, Kealia, Kapaa, Waipouli), Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection. The new law requires the Department of Land and Natural Resources to maintain beach transit corridors by prohibiting land owners from planting vegetation that interferes with the corridors. It also establishes access to the corridors as a policy within the Coastal Zone Management Program. Notice will be given to property owners adjacent to the corridors if vegetation from their property blocks access to the shoreline. The department has the authority to take enforcement action if the issue is not resolved after 21 days.

Hawaii's 1997 CZM Assessment reported that public-private partnerships and private land conservation efforts exist on a small scale in Hawaii, but in recent years they have been increasing. Frequently known as the "land trust movement," private conservation organizations are acquiring greenways, open space, community gardens, natural habitats, trails, and other lands with high "public" values. Projects like the acquisition of the shoreline areas of the Marks' Estate on Windward Oahu by the city and county of Honolulu with the assistance of the Trust for Public Land, illustrate the potential for these activities. In addition to the well-established Nature Conservancy - Hawaii, other national organizations such as the Trust for Public Land and Ducks Unlimited are also becoming more active in Hawaii. Local organizations such as Maui Open Space Trust, Kauai Public Land Trust, and Protect Kohanaiki Ohana, are also becoming more active.

A great new resource is a Coastal Access in Hawai'i website created by University of Hawai'i Sea Grant that attempts to address the longstanding need to provide accurate information on coastal access laws and policies in Hawai'i. UH Sea Grant is working on populating this website with maps that show the actual access points. Check it out!

Another good resource is the blog for Beach Access Hawaii.

Surfrider Foundation's Oahu Chapter website has beach access information. There is also beach access information on Surfrider's Kona Kai Ea Chapter website.

Site Inventory

26% of Hawaii's shoreline is publicly owned, according to Pogue P. and Lee V., 1999, Providing Public Access to the Shore: The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs. This document identifies 802 public access sites, which corresponds to about one public access site for every 1.3 miles of shoreline.

According to the 2006 Assessment there are 24.4 miles of accessible, swimmable sandy beaches, 7 national parks, 69 state parks, and 649 county parks. A total of 141 public beach parks exist in the State on 6 Islands. There are 184.9 miles of sandy shoreline and an estimated 1600 surfing sites in the State.

Although beach access guides are generally available for each major island (see below), a comprehensive inventory of beach access sites in Hawaii has not been readily available. As mentioned above, this is being remedied by University of Hawai'i Sea Grant's Coastal Access in Hawai'i website which does provide county-by-county information on public access points.

The state's public access quality is generally high. Maui has 24 beach parks, and most have parking with paved access and restrooms. Oahu has seven regional parks and 61 local beach/shoreline parks. Kauai has 18 beach parks, and Molokai has six beach parks. In total, Hawai'i has 116 beach parks, which represents 36% of all the beach access on the islands.

The state has enhanced public access since the early 1970s through the Special Management Area (SMA) permit process. The SMA regulations require a subdivider or developer, in cases where public access is not already provided, to dedicate land for public access by right-of-way easement for pedestrian travel from a public street to the land below the high-watermark.

Hawaii Beach Safety has surf and safety information for all islands.

The following websites contain county-specific beach access information:



  • In December 2011 Beach Toolz, LLC announced the availability of the Kauai Beach Guide exclusively for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The Kauai Beach Guide allows you to find beaches on Kauai based on a number of selectable options, including location, activities, and safety. Color-coded pins identify three beach safety levels: green - beaches with lifeguards, yellow - beaches that are generally safe under good conditions and red - beaches which call for extreme caution.
  • See the website of the County of Kauai Parks and Recreation and the Open Space Commission, especially the 2005 Report to the Kauai County Council. The Open Space Commission website also has reports for subsequent years.



Each county planning or tourism department publishes a shoreline or beach access guide:

  • Maui County Office of the Mayor. Maui County's Shoreline Access Guide. 1994. (Also contains information for Molokai and Lanai)
  • County of Kauai Planning Department. Kauai Beach Access Guide. June 1984.
  • County of Hawaii Planning Department. Shoreline Public Access Guide. April 1981.
  • City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting. Summary of Public Access. Date Unknown.

Some of these access guides may have updated editions.

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, State Parks website provides useful information on state parks in the Hawaiian Islands.

The Wildernet website is also a good source of information on Hawaii State Parks.

The Na Ala Hele Program is the State's trails and access program. The website provides maps and information on trails on each island. Although many of the trails are inland trails, some are coastal.

Economic Evaluation of Beaches

In late 2008 a $60,000 study financed by the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Waikiki Improvement Association estimated that Hawaii's tourism-driven economy would lose $2 billion a year if the beaches in Waikiki vanished from erosion. Complete erosion of the Waikiki shoreline would also reduce state revenues by $125 million a year. It also could trigger the loss of 6,000 jobs. The state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands has stated it would cost $30 million to protect the beach. It is now drafting a 10-year plan to fight erosion.

Hawaii produces a large number of annual reports that document the overall economic activity in the state and the very sizable proportion of the state's economy that is based on tourism. Much of this tourism is based on Hawaii's beaches and ocean recreation.

An interesting document is Economic Valuation of the Coral Reefs of Hawaii. This document reports the findings of a socioeconomic study of Hawaiian reefs.

NOAA's Office for Coastal Management (OCM) has written a discussion of the recreational value of beaches, in the context of beach fill projects. In 2009 OCM released Introduction to Economics for Coastal Managers, a basic introduction to economic ideas and methods that can be applied to coastal resource management. The economic concepts provided in this introduction are illustrated through several case studies. Other OCM/Digital Coast publications can be found here.

The following two websites provide information on the economic value of coasts and the ocean throughout the country.

The National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP) provides a full range of the most current economic and socio-economic information available on changes and trends along the U.S. coast and in coastal waters. You can download data on jobs and GDP associated with specific types of coastal activities for each coastal state. You also can download data on commercial fishing and landings. The NOEP made public their fully updated Non-Market Valuation website in September 2008. The largest database in the world of studies documenting the environmental and recreational values of ocean resources, the website now includes 1) an updated methodologies section, 2) frequently asked questions, 3) examples of how Non-Market valuation influences public policy, and 4) an expanded table summarizing valuation estimates from across the United States. In 2014 NOEP released an updated State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2014, which points out that there is an imbalance between the economic importance of coasts and coastal oceans and the federal support for stewardship of these resources. According to the report, coastal states supply over 81 percent of American jobs and contribute $13 trillion to the economy, or 84 percent of GDP. More on this here. The National Ocean Economics Program previously released State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2009, which presents time-series data compiled over the past 10 years that track economic activities, demographics, natural resource production, non-market values, and federal expenditures in the U.S. coastal zone on land and water. The report states that coastal states account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. economy. The most recent report released by NOEP is the State of the U.S. Ocean and Coastal Economies - 2016. The Center for the Blue Economy (CBE) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey now houses the National Ocean Economics Program (NOEP).

The website of Restore America's Estuaries has a report The Economic and Market Value of Coasts and Estuaries: What's At Stake?. According to the report, U.S. coasts and estuaries that have been protected and managed in a sustainable way are worth billions. Beaches, coastal communities, ports, and fragile bays are economic engines that drive and support large sectors of the national economy. The report focuses on aspects of coasts and estuaries that are most dependent on ecologically healthy conditions. The authors also examined a growing body of research that reveals the economic consequences of environmental change in coastal and estuary ecosystems.

A report A Review and Summary of Human Use Mapping in the Marine and Coastal Zone was published in December 2010. This report was prepared by ERG for NOAA's Coastal Services Center. The report evaluated different methods and approaches to measure human uses of the coastal and marine environment. The uses were divided into 1) military and industrial uses, 2) consumptive uses (e.g., fishing) and 3) non-consumptive activities (e.g., swimming, surfing, kayaking).

The economic value of beaches can increase or decrease due to a number of factors, including beach width; the presence or absence of amenities such as parking, restrooms or lifeguard services; the suitability of the beach for activities such as surfing or swimming; and the presence or absence of pollution and beach litter. In June 2014 NOAA published an infographic on the high cost of marine debris based on the report Assessing the Economic Benefits of Reductions in Marine Debris: A Pilot Study of Beach Recreation in Orange County, California, which was prepared by Industrial Economics, Inc. for NOAA's Marine Debris Division. It found that having debris on the beach and good water quality are the leading factors in deciding which beach residents visit. Reducing marine debris by even 25 percent at beaches in and near Orange County, California, could save residents approximately $32 million during the summer by not having to travel long distances to other beaches. Beach characteristics were collected for 31 popular Southern California public beaches from San Onofre Beach to Zuma Beach. Orange County residents were also surveyed on their recreation habits, including how many day trips they took to the beach from June - August 2013, where they went, how much it cost them, and which beach characteristics are important to them. The results provided in an estimate if how much Orange County residents would potentially benefit, including how often they visit beaches and how much they would save in travel costs, over a summer season by reducing marine debris at some or all of these 31 beaches. The study focused on Orange County because of the number and variety of beaches, their importance to permanent residents, ease of access, and likelihood that marine debris would be present. Researchers believe that, given the results, the study could be modified for assessing similar coastal communities in the United States.

For additional general discussion of the economic impacts of beaches, please see the article Economic Impact of Beaches.

Perception of Supply and Demand

Although all beaches in Hawaii are open to the public, access is restricted in some locations by the development of hotels, condominiums, and private homes on beachfront properties. On all islands, access has been guaranteed by traditional public easements, but these are under constant threat of loss or restrictions. Private gates and security guards have been placed at some easements (e.g., Portlock on Oahu or Kealia Kai on Kauai), causing concern to all users. On Kauai, the county is considering mandating that beach easements be allotted along every 1500 feet of new beachfront development. On every island, this has become a hotly contested issue.[1]

As noted in NOAA's Evaluation of Hawaii's Coastal Zone Management Program (January 2010):

"The evaluation team received numerous comments from members of the public on beach access. The comments from members of the general public focused on three concerns: (1) private landowners encouraging the growth of vegetation on the public beach through the planting and watering of salt tolerant plant species causing a narrowing of the beach and affecting the public’s ability to walk along the beach; (2) the gating of private roads that had previously provided perpendicular access to the coast, particularly in the Kailua area (Kahala Beach) of Oahu; and (3) the lack of adequate funding for the acquisition of new public access."

According to the 1997 Assessment, despite the increase in demand, acquisition, operation, and maintenance funding at all levels of government is shrinking. Sometimes this has led to the sale of public rights-of-way to generate revenues. Hawaii has numerous statutory and regulatory mechanisms to protect public access to the shoreline and forest resources; however, as a practical matter, consistent and effective enforcement of them is often lacking. Hawaii provides statutory protection against liability, under certain circumstances, for landowners who open their private property for public recreational access and use. But in recent years public and private landowners have become increasingly concerned about tort liability stemming from public recreational use of their lands, and are unsure whether existing statutory provisions adequately protect them from suit if someone is injured there. The result has been the withdrawal of some existing access and private landowners' reluctance to allow new public access. The state is also reluctant to open trails for public use without a clear legal standard setting the level of care for the improvement and maintenance of safe trails.

Hawaii's natural resources have always been a significant element of its attraction to visitors. However, mirroring a worldwide trend over the last several years, there has been an increasing demand for visitor experiences that include closer involvement with natural resources. This trend is sometimes known as "eco-tourism." Several organizations, conferences, and forums have focused on promoting eco-tourism, increasing demands for commercial use of public facilities and resources. At the same time, natural resource managers at all levels of government have seen their funding diminish. This has increased the tendency of some managers and policy makers to see commercial activity, and the resulting user fees that can be generated from trails and other public resources, as potential funding sources. These two dynamics raise a host of policy and management issues.

Growth in the ocean recreation industry has caused an increase in demand and user conflicts with respect to boating facilities, beach areas fronting resorts, marine life conservation districts, and other marine areas.

Certain shoreline areas (e.g., Kihei, Maui; Lanikai, Kaaawa, Hauula, Pupukea, Ewa, and Mokuleia, Oahu; Kekaha, Kauai; and Alii Drive, Kona, Hawaii) are experiencing significant beach erosion and shoreline retreat. In these areas landowners seek to protect their property by hardening the shoreline. This activity can cause scouring and beach loss, making lateral access along the shoreline difficult or impossible. Policies and proposed actions regarding shoreline hardening are currently under consideration at both the state and county levels.

Public Access Shoreline Hawaii (PASH) was mentioned above. The late Mr. Jerry Rothstein of PASH supplied the following (slightly edited) information regarding what he termed "administrative erosion" that he believed was increasingly restricting coastal access in Hawaii.

The problem is not mother nature but rather the hemorrhaging shoreline certification process which is supposed to protect our public shore but instead, twice a month, turns public shore into private property, the consequences of which are evident throughout Oahu. The solution is two fold: committed public participation in the malfunctioning shoreline certification process via the "Shoreline Notices" in the bi-weekly OEQC "Environmental Notice" and passage of appropriate remedial legislation.

Administrative Erosion
The source of the problem is the destructive influence of "administrative erosion" that results from the shoreline certification process used by the state that is supposed to protect Hawaii's public shore but instead gives it away. (The certified shoreline is the line from which the construction setback is established.) The persistent failure of the state to accurately locate shorelines according to law, i.e., at the upper reaches of the high seasonal surf, is disgraceful. The damage it has wrought on Oahu's shore is all too evident.

The State Surveyor's Office (SSO) continuously allows, if not instructs, private surveyors, hired by the property owner, to improperly locate the shoreline by allowing it to be placed no farther inland than the makai edge of the vegetation on the absurd premise that if the water went beyond the vegetation it would immediately kill it. According to the SSO, the fact that the vegetation is there is proof that the waves never go beyond it. Furthermore, the State Surveyor (mis)interprets "naturally rooted" vegetation as anything growing that is not in a pot or made of plastic, thereby inviting shorefront property owners to steal public beach by planting and maintaining salt water resistant vegetation. While the law establishes the shoreline at the upper reaches of the high seasonal surf, the SSO has gone on record as ignoring that criteria, even ignoring the debris line, in favor of his own false interpretation. The BLNR chairman automatically certifies and upholds the State Surveyor's work.

Furthermore, DLNR rules defining "shoreline" are contrary to the statutory definition of "shoreline" allowing the State Surveyor's Office, supported by DLNR, to behave as a rogue agency in defiance of the law and the public interest. It appears to me that inaccurately certifying shorelines too far makai is a state administrative policy. Mother nature's erosion is benign compared to the enormous loss resulting from state sponsored "administrative erosion."

The unconscionable theft of public shore eighteen years ago (on which part of the Hyatt Hotel - now Hilton Waikoloa on the Big Island - was built) occurred when the SSO falsely located, and the BLNR chair certified the shoreline two acres into the ocean. (After eleven years of litigation by Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., a federal court returned the two acres of land to the state, yet DLNR's recommendation to BLNR is to return the two acres, by land exchange, to the same people who stole it in the first place.) Such blatant give-aways (hopefully) no longer happen. Now, this conversion of public shore to private ownership is done on a smaller scale every two weeks (as public noticed in the OEQC Environmental Notice) wherein the shoreline setback often ends up where the shoreline should be, resulting in restricted lateral access and the cry for shoreline walls.

Twice per month the OEQC Environmental Notice comes out on the state's Website, in which every shoreline application throughout the state is public noticed with a two week period for public inspection and comment. This two-week period provides an opportunity for citizens to inspect the proposed shoreline delineation, and stop the certification process if it is wrong by requesting an on-site inspection asking to be notified of the date and time in order to be present to provide information as to the true location of the shoreline. Significant discrepancies that are not immediately corrected can now be resolved by a direct appeal to BLNR (rather than a very expensive, time consuming, and indirect, contested case hearing).

What PASH ultimately seeks are people from every coastal community on every island engaging in the process of correctly locating the "shoreline" in the area that they have personal knowledge of so that every certification is accurate rather than subject to the arbitrary (mis)interpretations of administration regulators. The PASH case enabled Hawaiians to maintain their traditional rights to undeveloped private property. Now it's time for all of us to exercise our right, if not our duty, to protect our public shore from being administratively eroded by indifferent state agencies.[2]

Tragically, Mr. Rothstein and his wife were killed in a car accident in January 2005.

Regarding the encroaching vegetation issue, in the 2008 legislative session, Hawaii Concurrent Resolution (HCR) No. 258 requested the Office of Planning to coordinate the City and State agencies in addressing the overgrowth of vegetation on Kahala Beach. A meeting of the working group was held on September 4, 2008 and a meeting with County Planning Directors was held on November 26, 2008 to discuss and evaluate this issue. A report was submitted to the 2009 Legislature in response to HCR 258, detailing specific legal provisions and cooperation among agencies to address the overgrowth of vegetation along the beach corridor.

Public Education Program

The HDLNR website (including Division sites for the Land Division and the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands) has several nice public education articles and "frequently asked questions" on beach access. In particular, see here.

Another good source of beach access information is Beach Access Hawaii. Beach Access Hawaii is a volunteer group, whose mission is:

  • To ensure that City and State standards for protecting public beach access are being complied with.
  • To have gates removed from non-private roads leading to the beach.
  • To ask homeowners on private lanes to keep gates open during daylight hours.
  • To improve beach accessibility for the elderly and disabled.

Although the group began in Kailua where private gated roads greatly outnumber public rights-of way, it is an island-wide issue that needs to be addressed by the City and State.

The website Hawaii Beach Safety from the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association constantly monitors the surf, wind, and reports from public safety officials that directly affect the conditions for safety of Hawaiian beaches. You can use the hazard signs shown on the website to quickly assess conditions and help you find the appropriate beach for your visit.

Surfrider Foundation's Oahu Chapter website has beach access information for the island of Oahu.

Contact Info

Douglas Tom
Hawaii CZM Program Manager
(808) 587-2875

Melissa Iawamoto
Planner, Coastal Zone Management Program
State of Hawaii Office of Planning
(808) 587-2845


  1. Carl Berg, Maui Chapter Surfrider Foundation, written correspondence. February 11, 2002.
  2. Jerry Rothstein, PASH. E-mail correspondence. August 25, 2003.

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