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Articles and Investigations – ProPublica: Oceanfront Property Tied to Obama Granted Exemption From Hawaii’s Environmental Laws

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This story was co-published with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

Officials in Honolulu have granted the developers of a luxury, oceanfront estate tied to Barack Obama a major exemption from environmental laws designed to protect Hawaii’s beaches.

The shoreline permit, issued by Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting on Monday, clears the way for the controversial multimillion dollar renovation of a century-old seawall in the heavily Native Hawaiian community of Waimanalo.

Under state and county laws, such projects are typically banned. Scientists and environmental experts say seawalls are the primary cause of beach loss throughout the state, and officials expect older ones to fall into obsolescence.

But the property owners, including Marty Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation, argued they needed an exemption to protect the sprawling compound they are building in eastern Oahu. State officials and community members say the former president, who was born and raised in Hawaii, is expected to be among the property’s future occupants. Representatives for Nesbitt and Obama did not return requests seeking comment for this story.

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As the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported this summer, the so-called shoreline setback variance is just one of several loopholes that developers have exploited across the islands over the past two decades to get around policies that are supposed to protect the state’s treasured beaches and sensitive coastlines.

The consequences are stark. Oahu has already lost about a quarter of its beaches to seawalls, which essentially cause beaches to drown. Future projections are more dire, with scientists warning that most of Hawaii’s beaches could be lost if hundreds of homes, condos, hotels and roads that line the coasts aren’t moved inland.

Beach advocates and some community leaders in Waimanalo had urged government officials to require Nesbitt to take down the crumbling wall, or at least move it farther inland to restore a portion of the public shoreline. The beach there is virtually gone. The turquoise ocean now slams up against the seawall most of the time, leaving no room for the public to fish or sit along the coast.

Opponents also cited a Honolulu County ordinance, which stresses that it’s the “primary policy of the city to protect and preserve the natural shoreline, especially sandy beaches,” as well as to maintain public access and open space along the shoreline. Secondary to these priorities is the protection of private property from coastal hazards and flooding.

But on Monday, Kathy Sokugawa, the director of the Department of Planning and Permitting, sided with the property owners, approving their request to revamp and expand the seawall. She agreed with the owners that not allowing them to renovate the structure would create a hardship, depriving them of “reasonable use of the land.”

In her decision, Sokugawa noted the seawall fronting the property is at risk of failing and said it was important to repair the wall so that its collapse wouldn’t endanger coastal homes, the nearshore water and public safety.

At the same time, the department is also requiring the property owners to participate in plans to restore a beach right beside the estate.

Critics, however, blasted the decision, saying it was an extraordinary departure from county policy.

Hardship exemptions are typically given out to property owners seeking to protect existing homes. In this case, the owners of the property bulldozed the structures on the site and started construction of new homes before applying for the shoreline setback permit.

Doorae Shin, coordinator for the local Surfrider Foundation, said she’s concerned that the approval sets a “dangerous precedent” for the expansion of many old seawalls, noting similar arguments could be made in their favor.

Sokugawa, who declined an interview request, didn’t address the issue in her final written decision.

The permit marks the last significant regulatory hurdle for developers of the Waimanalo property, which according to building permits will include three new single-family homes, two pools and a guard post. Construction has been underway for the past year.

As the Star-Advertiser and ProPublica reported this summer, the property was purchased by Nesbitt, co-CEO of a Chicago-based private-equity firm, and his wife for $8.7 million in 2015, and they subsequently subdivided the site into two lots. The overall development triggered the state’s Shoreline Protection Act, which requires coastal projects to get an environmental permit from the local government. But the owners skirted the requirement by building homes on each lot just under 7,500 square feet — the threshold under the law.

Consultants for Nesbitt later argued the $3.2 million seawall renovation was necessary in order to protect the property from erosion and ocean-related hazards. The plan will increase the height of some sections of the wall, while two new walls totaling 70 feet in length will be built behind it for support.

During a public hearing last month, the Oahu Surfrider Foundation and Sierra Club testified in opposition to the renovations, as did neighbors concerned about the potential impact of the project on the beach fronting their properties.

A Native Hawaiian community group restoring a historic turtle pond that fronts the property also registered opposition to the project, worried that it will cut off freshwater flowing into the ocean that’s needed for limu, or seaweed.

Honolulu Councilwoman Heidi Tsuneyoshi told county officials that she was gravely concerned that the primary purpose of the seawall repair project was to protect the private estate, as opposed to environmental and cultural resources. She urged planning officials to require the owners to go back and obtain the environmental permit they had skirted. She said that exemption violated the spirit of the law. The county declined.

“I’m just disappointed that this project wasn’t more fully vetted because of the sensitivities of the area,” she said.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica are spending the year investigating the state’s disappearing beaches. Please get in touch with reporter Sophie Cocke at or 808-295-1851 if you have information you want to share about seawalls or other shoreline hardening structures.

Sophie Cocke is a reporter with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. She has covered government and politics in Hawaii for the past decade.

Articles and Investigations – ProPublica