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Panel backs commercial activity ban at Hanakao‘o

Canoe clubs say beach last place for them in West Maui

Alongside keiki and canoe club members, Kekai Keahi, a Lahaina resident and teacher at Lahaina Intermediate School, testifies Tuesday in favor of a bill that would ban commercial ocean activity at Hanakaoo Beach Park. Canoe club members and west side residents came out en masse to support the bill before the County Council's Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAILUKU — A bill that would ban commercial activity at Hanakao’o Beach Park in Lahaina was passed unanimously by a Maui County Council committee on Tuesday, drawing applause from canoe club members who called it “the last beach” they have after years of being pushed out of resort areas.

The Environmental, Agricultural and Cultural Preservation Committee voted 7-0 to approve the bill, which now heads to the full council.

“I think that these conflict type of situations between residents and commercial tourist activities show just how over capacity we are as a tourist destination trying to find balance between all the desired uses of our public areas,” said Council Member Tamara Paltin, who proposed the bill and whose residency district includes West Maui.

Paltin’s bill would amend the Maui County Code to prohibit commercial ocean activity at Hanakao’o, because it “has proven to be increasingly incompatible with the growing need to house recreational and cultural canoe activities at the beach park.”

The bill would allow existing permit holders to continue operating at Hanakao’o Beach Park until their permits expire.

Walker "Boi" Crichton, keiki head coach for Lahaina Canoe Club, speaks about the importance of paddling while surrounded by some of his students on Tuesday. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

County Parks and Recreation Director Karla Peters said there are three permitted scuba operators and one kayak operator at Hanakao’o. Peters said the department didn’t have a record of how many unpermitted tours might be operating at the beach park, but was working to ramp up its security to better monitor the area.

Permit holders are allowed to operate at Hanakao’o from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to noon on Saturday and Sundays, and 7 a.m. to noon on holidays.

Permits are issued for one year and expire June 30, likely before the bill could be passed at the full council. Peters said the department was waiting for direction from council before renewing the permits.

It was standing room only in Council Chambers as West Maui residents and canoe club members turned out to support the bill. More than 40 people testified, the vast majority in favor.

Veteran coaches and paddlers said they’ve seen resort development continue to push the three West Maui clubs — Lahaina, Kahana and Napili — out of their original locations.

“We moved so many times, because every time a hotel build up, get kicked off that beach. Get another hotel build up, kick off that beach,” said Steve “Bear” Keahi, a longtime coach with Napili Canoe Club. “Canoe Beach is the last resort, especially with the Wild West now. All the commercial guys come down there because it’s the easiest access for them.”

Not only is Hanakao’o the hub of the West Maui clubs, but it’s also where the state regatta is held when it comes to Maui. However, club members said the growing tourist activity has become a safety hazard.

Theresa Marzan, vice president of the Napili Canoe Club, said there are tourists on stand-up paddleboards who don’t always know what they’re doing, scuba divers who don’t always use proper flag and safety protocols, sunset cruises and “little jetty boats zooming at high speeds back and forth.”

“Simple solution,” said Mike Tihada, member of the Napili club since age 5, “let the commercial activities that we the daily beach users do not want at Hanakao’o, and simply move it a short mile north to the area where we, the local people, are not wanted and welcome.”

Several youths on summer break also came to testify and stand in solidarity with their coaches.

“Paddling canoe is very important to me, and it is part of who I am as a person,” said Anuhea Naki, a 14-year-old paddler who’s been with Lahaina Canoe Club for seven years. “I have learned so much about the ocean, especially at Canoe Beach. Please allow this kind of learning to continue.”

But Greg Howeth, president of Lahaina Divers and father of a paddler, had concerns about the bill and wondered if the community could come to a solution. He suggested extending the lanes farther out into the ocean to allow a greater buffer between boaters and paddlers. He wondered if the department could put time constraints on the permits, pointing out that paddling practices are normally in the morning and afternoon.

Toni Davis, who’s been the executive director of the Activities and Attractions Association of Hawaii for 22 years, asked for the bill to be deferred and amended to allow the displaced companies to operate elsewhere. She said that many of Maui’s commercial ocean recreation operators are longtime small businesses who shouldn’t be punished “as a result of a much larger issue,” which is tourism overcrowding.

Paltin said afterwards that she hoped to work with the parks department to find a solution for the displaced permit holders, as well as work out a lease for the West Maui canoe clubs, similar to what the Central Maui clubs have.

When asked if it might be more efficient to include a solution for the businesses in the current bill, Paltin said she didn’t want to delay the measure because the permits expire at the end of the month, and the parks department needs to know how to proceed.

She added that a solution for the operators might warrant a deeper discussion, “and I don’t want to assume they all want the same thing.”

The committee also decided to defer discussion of giving Hanakao’o a cultural designation, opting to first get feedback from the community and the Cultural Resources Commission.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.