Residents want county to manage popular beach parking lot

Private company trying to close lot, calling police on beachgoers, some tell state

This gravel lot in Keawakapu is split between public beach parking and private parking Friday afternoon. Maui residents are expressing opposition to having a private company lease the land and manage the lot, saying that management has tried to close the lot and called police on beachgoers. Hotel management said it has given up multiple parking stalls over the years and tried to maintain the lot as the community has asked. Residents instead support Maui County managing the lot. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

More than 100 Maui residents, including elected officials, expressed opposition to having a private company lease the land and manage a popular parking lot near Keawakapu Beach.

Instead, residents want Maui County to manage the gravel lot on state land near the Days Inn by Wyndham Maui Oceanfront. Residents alleged that the current lessee, Ruby & Sons Hospitality, which also holds the general lease for the inn next door, have not done a good job managing the lot. They claimed that management is trying to close the public lot without permit, calling police on local fishermen and families using the beach reserve and tearing down signs explaining the public beach reserve. They also worry about the lack of parking in the area along with a housing development set to go up on the other side of South Kihei Road, which will further limit public parking.

More than 135 people submitted written testimony to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which on Friday was considering approval of an evaluation committee’s recommendation to select a proposal by Ruby & Sons Hospitality to lease the land and operate the parking lot as a public-private facility.

State Rep. Tina Wildberger, whose district is South Maui, along with Maui County Council Members Tamara Paltin, Shane Sinenci, Kelly King and Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, submitted written testimony citing concerns over approving the evaluation committee’s recommendations. They echoed community concerns and supported the possibility of the county managing the parking lot. Rawlins-Fernandez, the council’s vice chairwoman, also testified during the meeting Friday.

The board agreed to defer the item, especially after hearing from state Department of Land and Natural Resources Land Division Administrator Russell Tsuji, who spoke about Maui County’s interest in possibly obtaining an adjacent parcel to the current parking lot.

Tsuji said the state was working on a response letter to the county regarding the matter.

Even if the board approved the recommendation on Friday, the matter would have to go back to the board after an agreement was negotiated and rent was determined.

BLNR documents show the current ratio of the parking lot is 51 public stalls and 34 for hotel and restaurant guests. Ruby & Sons has operated the lot under a state revocable permit since 2012, when it purchased the adjacent hotel out of bankruptcy.

Bernard Bays, the attorney for Maui Oceanfront, said the inn owners have maintained the lot as the public had wanted, including keeping it as gravel. He added that the hotel has never taken parking from the public, but instead has given more stalls, pointing to the long history of the lot, which involved an agreement with residents in 2005 that included giving up 51 percent of the parking lots to the public.

At a Maui County Council meeting in 2018, Bays said that the agreement from 2005 arose when Wailuku attorney Isaac Hall wanted to ensure the public could get some of that parking that was going to be used by the business in the area.

That “put a crimp” on the hotel and made them do valet parking and double parking in the hotel property, Bays said at the board’s Friday meeting.

“It’s really impaired the operation of the hotel on the state lease,” he said.

And, he said that by the request of Council Member King in 2018, they were required to provide 60 percent of the parking stalls in the lot for public parking, another move that he said has “seriously impaired the operation of the hotel and its restaurant.”

The 2018 change came as the council approved a bill that granted a two-year conditional permit to Ruby & Sons Hospitality to allow for the construction and use of the off-site parking lot in the county park district. Obtaining the permit is in compliance with the 2005 settlement agreement.

Bays also noted Friday the possibility of the county acquiring parcels next to the current lot; if it goes through, the hotel would get back eight parking stalls.

“That’s going to be very helpful to the successful operation of the hotel and the restaurant in the hotel,” Bays said.

Sarento’s on the Beach, the restaurant at the hotel, closed down due to the pandemic, according to Bays, with another restaurant to possibly open at the beginning of the new year.

In agreeing to defer the matter, Chairwoman Suzanne Case said that “from my perspective there seems to be an issue with parking to get to the beach. There is also an issue with parking for the hotel that has been there for 50 years.

“The solution seems to be the parcels that are adjacent, that the county seems to be expressing interest in and we are completely willing to profile these parcels to the county for that,” Case said. “That seems like it would solve everybody’s problem.”

Case also noted the county didn’t seem interested in the current parking lot.

DLNR documents show Maui County did express interest in a long-term lease for the parking lot lands currently managed by the inn but did not follow through with subsequent required submittals.

Case added that with the hotel trying to have parking for its guests, that is probably why they are “shooing” people away. But on the other hand, if “you are a member of the public and trying to park, that’s very frustrating.”

Doreen Canto, the board’s Maui member, originally made a motion to not approve the evaluation committee’s recommendation but later changed it to a deferral to await word on the state’s discussion with the county on the other parcels.

Canto referred to the “many testimonies” opposed to private management, noting that the parking area means a lot to the community. She said she hoped the state could enter an agreement with the county and pointed out that the housing project set to go up in the area will have residents scrambling for parking again.

Kai Nishiki, an environmental and shoreline access activist who has been vocal on the lease and led the charge against it, told the board Friday that “we must keep public lands in public hands.”

She added that development has been increasing in the area, parking options are diminishing and that the management has a track record of bad interactions with the public using the lot.

“This is not someone who we would want to have a long-term lease on a parking lot that makes public use of the beach reserve even possible,” she said. “As you know, no parking equals no beach access.”

Nishiki said management has tried to close off the parking lot without a permit and has coned off access regularly to illegally block public beach access parking on South Kihei Road.

A county spokesperson did not immediately respond to an email asking about the administration’s interest in the current parking lot and/or adjacent properties in the area.

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


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