Gates restrict access to Honokeana Cove

For nearly a decade, Charlie Selkirk and her husband, Lance, have been vacationing at West Maui’s Napili Point. One of the highlights of their stay is snorkeling next to honu or turtles at the nearby Honokeana Cove.

“To see those turtles come up so close, it’s the most exciting and enjoyable activity I’ve ever done in my life,” said Charlie Selkirk, 67, who is legally blind and can make out only large shapes from a close distance.

But in recent months, easy access to the cove has been cut off. Visiting beachgoers like the Selkirks used to be able to walk straight down to the beach by cutting through the lobby area of oceanfront Honokeana Cove Resort Condominiums. But about a month ago, the resort put up gates that require an access code, which prevents nonguests from walking through private property.

“For many years, I did not want gates going up because it’s not aloha, but in the past few years we had so many trespassers abuse our property,” said Honokeana Cove Resort Condominiums Rental Manager Su Campos.

Beachgoers are “dropped off by the busloads” and cut through the private resort’s property to get to the cove, all the while sitting on chairs, using the swimming pool and showers, even setting up picnics in the courtyard area, said Campos.

“I’ve been here for 20 years and it hasn’t been a problem, but in the past couple of years so many people come . . . and blatantly abuse our property,” said Campos. “The sad thing is that those kind of people have spoiled it for everybody.”

With beach access via the resort cut off, the only way to get to the coveted cove is to swim over or to climb over from neighboring Napili Point, which can be a problem for elderly or disabled vacationers like the Selkirks.

“Napili Point access is rough and jagged. You have to be young,” said Mrs. Selkirk. “And with my vision, I can’t do that.”

While public access to shorelines is a valued right in Hawaii, the landowner may legally erect the gates, as long as the structures are located on their own property. According to Campos, the gates are “totally legal.”

She said before putting up the gates, she did try to contact County Council members last year to find a viable option, possibly in a stretch of land located south of the condominiums, that would still allow the public to access Honokeana Cove.

“The county has gotten a free ride all these years because people have been walking through our property,” said Campos. “The county needs to step up to the plate.”

The county has the primary authority and duty to develop and maintain public access to “land below the high-water mark on any coastal shoreline,” as mandated by Section 46-6.5, Hawaii Revised Statutes. Other sections of state law require the county to purchase land for public rights-of-way to shorelines, possibly through “co-sponsorships” with the state.

But the process of acquiring these public access easements must be balanced with private ownership agreements, said Tara Owens, a coastal hazards specialist for the University of Hawaii Sea Grant Program. She visited the cove and surrounding shorelines about a year ago with County Council Member Elle Cochran and other shoreline planners.

“Counties can create access easements, but you have to find a location where access is feasible, and the owners of the property have to be compensated,” said Owens.

Owens also noted that the County Council has in the past implemented measures to protect public access to shorelines. In 2008, the county reached a resolution with a landowner who wanted to develop a vacation rental complex in North Kihei that would have blocked public access to the shoreline. The parties agreed that the landowner would be responsible for creating an American with Disabilities Act-accessible pedestrian walkway to the beach, along with appropriate signage.

Cochran, who chairs the council Infrastructure and Environmental Management committee, said that the issue at Honokeana Cove is already on her radar, and that the county Planning Department will be working to come up with a shoreline plan, though it has not yet been brought up as an agenda item in council.

“Shoreline access is an important part of the law here in Hawaii. . . . It’s near and dear to the hearts of several council members, but the challenge comes in the implementation,” said Owens. “It’s going to take a little bit of collaboration but it can be done.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at