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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

Both victory and defeat came from Sandy Beach dispute

By Phil Estermann and Curt Sanburn

Fifteen years ago this month, the Honolulu City Council was poised to approve a proposed luxury housing development on an artificial berm across Kalaniana'ole Highway from Sandy Beach. It was a proposal that alarmed many O'ahu residents, who saw that it meant the eventual urbanization of O'ahu's most accessible and spectacular wild coastline.

What happened in April of 1987 triggered a wave of grassroots efforts and historic events that eventually led to the open-space protection of the undeveloped land between Koko Head and Makapu'u. That wave swept up just about everyone in it, from Honolulu's leading politicians, to the Hawai'i Supreme Court, to Bishop Estate, to the Legislature, to the neighborhood boards, and to thousands and thousands of regular folks.

In early April 1987, an array of organizations and individuals lined up at the City Council hearings to oppose the proposed development (211 luxury homes on the 31-acre parcel). The uproar included tour-bus operators, labor unions that service the visitor industry, artists, watchdog organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Hawai'i's Thousand Friends, Life of the Land, Sierra Club, and scores of concerned citizens from all parts of O'ahu.

At the same time, a majority at the City Council was intent on deal-making with the developers. They ignored the hue and cry and, on April 15, voted 5-4 to approve the project. Their deaf ear to public sentiment ignited the flame of citizen activism.

After the council vote, a loose group of people met to figure out what to do. They met again. And again. They decided to turn back the council's action (and the planned development) with a three-pronged strategy:

  • First, by going to court to challenge the legality of the council's action. This would slow down implementation of the council's decision and buy time to organize the community's clear support for open space at Sandy Beach. To do this, the Sandy Beach Defense Fund was organized.
  • Second, by organizing an initiative drive that would allow voters on O'ahu to overturn thecouncil's action. For this campaign, the Save Sandy Beach Initiative Coalition was created.
  • Third, by getting government support to plan and dedicate the entire coastline from Koko Head and Makapu'u for open space. For this, the Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline Park Committee began to meet.

All three efforts were initiated and carried out by a small, fluid group of about a dozen volunteers at any one time, meeting on a weekly basis and operating by consensus. Meetings were public and open to all. The group had critical support from a few key politicians, particularly then-City Council members Marilyn Bornhorst and Gary Gill.

While the Defense Fund retained an attorney to fight the City Council's action in court, the Initiative Coalition hit the streets with an army of petition circulators who obtained 40,000 signatures in 10 weeks. In September 1987, the signatures were verified and the petition certified, setting the stage for the Sandy Beach initiative election in the fall of 1988.

The developers and landowner Bishop Estate tried very hard to stop the election. At one point their lawyers attempted to subpoena 53 petition signers. After nearly a year of high-profile court action, the Hawai'i Supreme Court allowed the election to go forward as part of the November 1988 general election.

The campaign was intense, with the Bishop Estate spending $10,000 a day during the final month on a last-ditch media campaign urging the public to vote "No." The coalition battled back with a low-budget media and grassroots campaign that said "Yes." Opinion polls showed strong support across the board for the initiative. (Of all ethnic groups on O'ahu, Native Hawaiians showed the strongest support.) Both daily newspapers endorsed the initiative, as did neighborhood boards islandwide and 81 candidates running in federal, state and local elections.

On Election Day, voters across the island supported the initiative, voting 2-to-1 to rezone the property from residential to preservation. It was a huge victory for citizen activism and for the environment.

The developers and Bishop Estate immediately went back to court to overturn the election results, and in May 1989, the Hawai'i Supreme Court struck down the Sandy Beach initiative. Furthermore, the court stripped voters in all four counties of their land-use initiative voting rights.

The court's ruling must be remembered as one of the most decisive and anti-democratic power plays in the ongoing saga of land and power in Hawai'i.

Several weeks later, the City Council, bowing to the public sentiment, voted unanimously to rezone the Sandy Beach parcels from residential to preservation. The developer immediately contested that rezoning in court.

With Sandy Beach protected but the land-use initiative lost, the coalition went to the state Legislature to ask that state law be amended, pursuant to the Supreme Court ruling, to restore voters' rights. The coalition was energized by poll numbers which showed that a rock-solid majority of the public wanted their voting rights back. But legislators with ties to Bishop Estate and other major landowners, the development industry, banks and construction unions proved to be immovable obstacles.

After three years of exhausting lobbying and grassroots work, from 1989 to 1992, the coalition gave up.

But the Sandy Beach message had been heard. Incoming Gov. Ben Cayetano signaled his intention to protect the Ka Iwi coastline in perpetuity, and, in 1998, the state purchased the 305 acres at Queen's Beach from Bishop Estate with the intention to manage a wilderness park there.

Mayor Jeremy Harris likewise made clear his vision for an open coastline when he took office in 1996. In February of this year, the city announced the purchase of the Sandy Beach parcel, as part of a settlement of developer claims against the city. As soon as the settlement is certified by the courts, the entire Ka Iwi coastline will be in public hands.

Looking forward, management issues for the coastline must be addressed: issues of access, parking and the degree of park development; the restoration of wetlands and protection of native species; and the defense of Ka Iwi's rugged and untamed character.

These won't be dramatic struggles, but they will require vigilance and sensitivity, so that our children and their children will always have a place near the sea where nature rules.

What started out as a public uprising against bad land-use planning and arrogant politicians was vindicated in the end by an overwhelming acknowledgment of the inherent value of that beautiful coastline. It's just that the public knew it before its leaders did.

On the other hand, the saga of Sandy Beach is a sober reminder of how easy it was to extinguish a right as basic as voting, when it threatens powerful interests. It needs pointing out that today the public could not defend Sandy Beach as it did in 1988.

Are we better off?

Phil Estermann and Curt Sanburn have worked to protect open space on the Ka Iwi coastline for 15 years.