KIHEI - County crews pushed back sand and removed the tops of dunes along a quarter-mile stretch of South Kihei Road last week as part of an effort to keep sand out of the road, officials said.
While the Maui County Code prohibits any grading of coastal sand dunes, public works and planning officials said they believed the dune work was allowed as routine road maintenance. The work involved reducing the height of the dunes by removing sand from the top with heavy equipment, loading it into trucks and driving it up the road to add to dunes on the shoreline a few miles north.
But Planning Director Jeff Hunt said the public works Highways Division should probably have applied for permits to work on the dunes.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
A crew from the county Highways Division takes the top off a Kihei dune Friday morning between the Maui Lu and Mai Poina Oe lau Beach Park.
"We are working with the Public Works Department to get some permitting for this," he said, adding that, depending on the amount of sand involved, he believed the project could be eligible for an after-the-fact special management area minor permit, which means it could be approved without a public hearing. The permit could include some conditions, such as installing a sand fence on the dune to prevent sand from blowing onto the road in the future, he said.
Public Works Director Milton Arakawa said the work was allowed under the county code.
"The work is considered maintenance," he said. "Some people may have been concerned about heavy equipment that's there, but they basically are just moving the sand that was blown onto the road back to where it was." The sand tends to migrate south down the shoreline, he added.
Hunt agreed. "I think my staff would interpret it as not grading but perhaps modification," he said. "Can you take a shovelful of sand and remove it? Where do you draw the line? The prohibition on grading (dunes) is for more large-scale grading."
Under the Maui County Code, section 20.08.035, "any grading of a coastal dune within the shoreline area or a frontal dune is prohibited." The code allows sand to be imported and added to a dune for the purpose of rebuilding it, but a grading permit is required for that work.
University of Hawaii Seagrant Extension Agent Zoe Norcross-Nuu said the code allows sand "pushing," or moving clean sand that has blown into the roadway back into the dune system it came from. But it doesn't allow sand to be removed from the dunes themselves, she said.
"You wouldn't ever - ever - touch a dune when you're doing sand pushing," she said. "You're pretty much not allowed to touch a dune ever."
She said it was good that the sand removed near the Maui Lu was being added to dunes farther down the beach, since moving sand within the same dune system can be allowed under some circumstances.
"They've kept the sand in the system, which is better than removing it," she said. "However, from the sound of it, the integrity of the dune at the south end of that parcel has been compromised."
Dunes play a critical role in protecting infrastructure and houses near the coast from high surf, Norcross-Nuu said. They can also be an important habitat for nesting seabirds, although she said she was not aware of any nests in the area.
Dunes act as a kind of "bank account for the beach," storing sand that can be used to replenish the beach when it erodes in a storm, she said. That can be essential to keeping enough sand in place so that people can have access to walk the length of the beach.
"When you reduce the height of a dune, you're making a withdrawal from that bank account and not putting it back," Norcross-Nuu said.
Kihei resident George Rixie, who has worked on dune restoration projects in the past, said he was alarmed last week when he saw county crews removing "truckloads" of sand along with vegetation that had been growing on the dunes, some of which he estimated had been over 12 feet high.
"It's just flat," he said.
He said some sand from the dunes had blown into the makai driving lane of South Kihei Road, but he thought the county's work appeared to go far beyond what was needed to clear the road.
Brian Hashiro, chief of field operations and maintenance for the Highways Division, said he did not believe a permit was required for work he considered to be routine road maintenance.
"We've done this work before, and no one mentioned anything before," he said.
The work was scheduled after the county received complaints from a number of drivers about sand in the road, he said. Work started last week and was expected to continue for another one to two weeks.
Asked why the road maintenance also included reducing the heights of the dunes, Hashiro said the dunes had been damaged by storms in the past, and crews were now restoring them to their previous condition.
"We're redoing the dunes along the road, reforming it," he said.
He said crews had saved the vegetation they removed from the dunes and would replant it when work was complete.
"That's helpful," Norcross-Nuu said. "That dune will probably rebuild over time with the plants. If they re-establish, they'll continue to trap the sand."
Hunt said the Planning Department understood Public Works' responsibility to keep roads clear of sand but said it would have been helpful to notify residents of the project ahead of time, do the work in smaller increments, and possibly work with community organizations like the Kihei Community Association for input.
"In hindsight, it could have been done better, and we're going to work with Public Works to improve the process," he said.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.