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County park officials mull access fees

County officials are considering ways to tap revenue generated by tour companies that bring visitors to popular sites like Hookipa Beach Park. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Free entry for everyone at Maui County parks could become a thing of the past.

Last week, the county Cost of Government Commission heard a suggestion to charge park entry fees for visitors and businesses from Vice Chairwoman Annie Alvarado.

“I thought it was something we should have a discussion about,” she said Thursday at a regular commission meeting.

The commission is an advisory panel that reviews existing county procedures and recommends improvements. The Maui County Council would need to approve park entrance fees.

The state charges parking fees at Iao Valley State Monument (although that has been closed following massive flooding in September), and the National Parks Service imposes an entry fee at Haleakala National Park. There are other park entry fees in the state. There’s a $7.50 entry fee at Hanauma Bay on Oahu, although state residents, active members of the military and children 12 years old and younger are free.

Visitors line up to watch large waves roll in to Hookipa in 2014. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Ka’ala Buenconsejo said the idea of charging an entry fee at some parks isn’t new.

“It’s always been a conversation that is ongoing,” he told commissioners during a meeting in the mayor’s conference room in the Kalana O Maui Building.

Park fees for services such as rental of community centers and gymnasiums are deposited in the county’s general fund, he said.

If the county were to charge park entry fees, a likely place to start would be at Kanaha Beach Park, a popular and world-renowned windsurfing and kitesurfing beach near Kahului Airport, Buenconsejo said.

The park’s master plan calls for building a guard shack where entry fees could be collected as vehicles pass through.

Annie Alvarado

He estimated it would cost around $250,000 to set up a guard shack at the park. His estimate includes the cost of personnel to staff it.

Alvarado said the idea to pay for park improvements by charging entry fees came up after she attended a public meeting on the Kanaha park master plan.

Alvarado said that before becoming a resident here, she visited Maui many times.

“We would gladly pay a fee, if it were to go and pay (to) maintain a park,” she said.

She added that she has no interest making residents pay an entry fee because they support parks by paying taxes.

Kitesurfers and windsurfers ply the waters off Kanaha Beach Park in 2014. County Department of Parks and Recreation Director Ka‘ala Buenconsejo said the idea of charging an entry fee could be launched at Kanaha Beach Park, a popular and world-renowned windsurfing and kitesurfing beach near Kahului Airport. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Carol Clark, director of public relations at the Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, said via email that: “We absolutely understand the importance of taking care of and maintaining our precious natural resources that our local residents and visitors enjoy. In that regard, MVCB understands that both the county and state may need to do whatever is deemed necessary to both manage and protect those resources for the continued benefit of all.”

Several ocean sports companies that offer activities to visitors at county parks did not respond to requests for comment.

Commission Chairman Paul Kailiponi said during a meeting recess that the commission plans to continue exploring the entry fee matter at future meetings.

Buenconsejo said that besides the idea of charging an entry fee to some parks, the department is looking at other ways to generate revenue.

One idea is to work with the state to see if the county could get some of the money the state makes from charging visitors a $5-per-vehicle parking fee at Iao Valley State Monument. Commercial vehicles also pay a fee, but Hawaii residents are free.

Buenconsejo said the state collects around $20,000 in entry fees per month at Iao Valley. (State officials could not be reached Friday to confirm the amount.)

“We do have a big concern with Iao. They have no infrastructure,” Buenconsejo said, pointing out that, without restrooms at the state park, visitors stop by county-owned and maintained Kepaniwai park to use facilities there.

On another note, Buenconsejo said the parks department is working with the Maui County Council on legislation to permit concessions at county parks.

Outside the meeting, Buenconsejo said concession permit charges would involve businesses such as food trucks or those selling soft drinks.

The parks department already charges activity operators for commercial ocean recreational activity permits. Money raised pays for park rangers and ocean recreational permit systems.

Buenconsejo said the department is studying ways to gain revenue from tour companies that make stops at already-crowded county parks.

At Hookipa Beach Park, for example, tour companies bring visitors to view turtles that show up on the small sandy area on the Hana side of the park. Large tour buses can be seen at the beach’s parking lot.

“We are looking into how we are going to capture some of the revenue the businesses are making,” Buenconsejo said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.