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Weighing all sides

The rutted four-wheel drive dirt road down to Wailea Beach wound through kiawe trees and blue rock boulders to end, if memory serves, near where the Grand Wailea Resort’s Humuhumunukunukuapua’a restaurant now sits.

The access road was soon to be gated off, but we didn’t know that the night we gathered to bid farewell to a friend moving to the Mainland. Like many contemporaries of the time, he was leaving to go where job opportunities and chances of someday owning a home were better.

This was back in the 1980s when it was possible to have an entire beach to yourself on a quiet dark night. The sharpest memory of that sendoff is the flashing red light that topped a tall crane parked uphill. Word had it construction of a new hotel was to start soon. The half moon kiawe thicket and pristine beach were sure to change.

The Wailea Point condo project kicked off a flurry of construction when it broke ground at the south end of the beach in 1984. Armies of tradesmen and women worked at a fevered pitch throughout the back half of the ’80s to first reshape the land above Wailea Beach and then build deluxe hotels of a scale not yet seen on Maui. The Four Seasons Resort opened in 1990 and the Grand Hyatt Wailea in 1991. On the west side, the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua opened in 1992.

The immense size of the construction projects fueled an economic boom with impacts felt across the island. Rental housing was tight, unemployment was low and homes and businesses were popping up everywhere. The new county dump off Pulehu Road was so inundated with construction debris its first section was filled not long after it opened.

The beach and boom are brought to mind by the Maui County Council, which seems determined to address overtourism and overdevelopment. Residents who recently held a Take Back the Beach rally at Wailea Beach also brought the issues to the fore. They say they are unwilling to accept a return to pre-pandemic norms, like having the beach covered nearly end to end with hotel lounge chairs and umbrellas.

Tourism and construction are inextricably linked on this island. For decades they have driven our economy and padded our tax base. “Build it and they will come” has long been the mantra. There has been reluctance by past council members to approve development projects, and a few staunch opponents, but even some of the more vocal anti-growth candidates changed their tunes once they got into office and needed to work on a balanced budget. Being forced to ax deserving programs and services will do that to a person.

We wish the current council the patience to listen to all sides and the wisdom to carefully weigh every aspect of the very complex challenge of balancing Maui’s future with its present.

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