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County considers purchasing 30 acres of North Shore land

Community concerned about access, erosion and illegal activity at Wawau Point in Paia

Baby Beach in Spreckelsville is bathed in sunshine Wednesday afternoon. Maui County is considering purchasing a 30-acre parcel that spans the shoreline along Wawau Point in Paia, also known as Baby Beach, amid community concerns over access, erosion and illegal activity. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Maui County is considering purchasing a popular North Shore beach property in order to address ongoing community concerns over public safety, management practices and environmental degradation.

“From what I’ve heard from the community, ownership and more monitoring of the area — as it is right now, I guess there is some inappropriate activity going on there — and basically give the county more jurisdiction over it,” Maui County Council Member Mike Molina, who proposed the purchase, said Tuesday. “And members of the community who live in that area feel more comfortable, I guess, with the county having more ownership and stewardship of this area versus the private landowner.

“This is what I’ve been told, so this is why I’ve decided to go ahead and initiate this proposal.”

The council’s Government Relations, Ethics and Transparency Committee, which Molina chairs, discussed possibly acquiring the land from Alexander & Baldwin Properties Hawaii LLC as a way to manage the area and make improvements to Wawau Point in Paia, also known as Baby Beach.

Because discussions between the county and the property owner are still preliminary, Carol Reimann, vice president of A&B on Maui, said they are not able to disclose any details of the possible transaction yet.

This view taken Wednesday from the Baldwin Beach Park end of Baldwin Beach shows the length of the parcel under consideration.

However, Reimann said that the company is open to the transaction and that it “makes sense” for the county to acquire the property due to the nature of the site.

For years, Baby Beach offered beachfront parking for easy access to the beach where people of all ages could swim, snorkel, fish, exercise or lay out on the sand.

Over the years, the red clay parking lot has experienced severe erosion from foot traffic and vehicle traffic, endangering the health of wildlife, plants and the coastal shoreline.

A lack of monitoring has also led to illegal activity, such as overnight camping and dumping trash, which has caused unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

Speckelsville resident Jochanan Aronowicz said during public testimony on Tuesday that there has since been development on Kealakai Place leading into the parking area, including “no parking” signage and barriers, which is impacting access for beachgoers and fishermen as well as causing congestion of parked cars.

“Availability is constantly changing as neighbors try to mitigate and work with increasing parking in the neighborhood because as of today, a gate has already been installed at the site and that wasn’t subject to any public testimony or any environmental assessment or any cultural assessment,” Aronowicz said. “I would just say that we are having some issues actually addressing the issue before action gets taken.”

He hopes that a balance is reached between community and county management of the property.

Lucienne de Naie, president of the Haiku Community Association, said this proposed purchase and increased property management is a “long-held dream.”

“The purchase is a very wise investment for the county,” de Naie said during her testimony, noting how local families bring their young children to Baby Beach because they don’t have to worry as much about big waves due to the surrounding reef.

Kupuna also frequent Baby Beach to enjoy a swim because “they don’t have to battle the currents,” she added.

“It is a very, very popular area, but it has had some abuse in terms of cars driving out into sensitive areas,” she said. “It does need management.”

The parking lot in question is the westernmost end of a nearly 30-acre A&B-owned parcel along the Paia-Spreckelsville coast.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, large plastic barriers were placed at the end of the street as a way to mitigate crowds from gathering as well as to prevent illegal camping and dumping in the area, which were recurring issues in the past, Reimann said.

Pedestrian access has not been impeded, just vehicle access.

In an effort to stop erosion and improve public safety at Wawau Point, an area resident that summer had installed nine boulders and gravel at the red clay parking lot, which runs into the shoreline. The move sparked community concerns over impacts to the environment and led to county fines for shoreline work violations.

While the property is owned by A&B, the parking lot is within a shoreline that is protected by the Coastal Zone Management Act and related state and county laws and regulations. A permit is required for shoreline construction.

Although officials acknowledged the actions as “well-intended,” Reimann said they were still unpermitted and illegal, and the resident was cited and fined.

“As a remedy to the violation, A&B has worked cooperatively with the individuals to plan for improvements by applying for the necessary permits to install protective boulders,” she said.

Additional improvements include installing instructional signs, which outline that there is no overnight parking, no camping, no unleashed animals, no littering or dumping and no alcohol consumption, as well as notifying the public that there is no lifeguard on duty.

The property owner also plans to plant native naupaka to curtail erosion.

A yellow vehicle control access gate has also recently been installed. Once the barriers are removed and access resumes, the gate will be utilized to manage traffic flow into the lot.

The boulders and signage will be installed by the end of the month, before the gates are reopened.

“This will be on a trial basis as we need to reserve the right to close the gates depending on the public’s use of the area, potential issues with wildlife protection, also preservation, and public well-being,” Reimann said. “For instance, if there are illegal activities and security issues, then we may need to close the area.”

A&B had received a special management area permit from the county to pursue these improvements, which cost nearly $204,000, and to also complete the project within one year of starting the work.

Marci Sato, deputy director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation, said that a preliminary cost analysis for purchasing property and installing a possible restroom has not been done yet.

Once the purchase is made, though, discussions about specific management practices will then take place, Sato said.

The county did not disclose a timeline.

Guy Hironaka, real property management specialist for the Maui County Purchasing Division, declined to comment Tuesday since the Finance Department is still in negotiations with the property owner.

If a deal is struck between the county and A&B to purchase all or most of the 29.95 acres, then the matter would transfer to the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee, which Council Vice Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez chairs, for the usage of any funds.

In the meantime, Molina reminded the council and public that “this is just a starting point” and next steps may include another committee meeting for updates on the progress of negotiations between the Finance Department and A&B.

“I do see a benefit for the community on this,” Molina said. “Hopefully negotiations will be expedited and we won’t have to wait too long.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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