Sunday, February 3, 2008

Aloha, but not in my backyard

Picketing against illegal picket fences ...

PHOTO GALLERY | MOVIE CLIP | GALFROMDOWNUNDER IN HAWAII

I've just attended my first rally in a long time - the placard waving, chanting and foot-stomping kind.

For bicycling? No, for beachcombing! Well actually, we're talking the full monty of ocean worshipping activities, like surfing, swimming, walking, sunbathing, beach-barbecuing, and kiddie favorites like jellyfish-poking and limpet harassing ...



The rally was organized by Beach Access Hawaii, Surfrider Foundation and other citizen advocacy groups, collectively incensed at the increasing gall of "rich landowners" who've been surreptitiously gating and blocking off beach access paths for quite some time - and no one is stopping them.

Often, the gates are torn down only to be put right back up again, with fake signs saying "Private Access" and "Trespassers will be stoned with coconuts" or words to that effect. Some even hire security guards to stop beachgoers in their tracks. Some aloha! After living in Costa Rica for two years, it bothered me that blow-ins would bring their guns and gates and sense of entitlement from the place they are fleeing and inflict them on their new 'home' - basically someone else's backyard. Then again, with Christopher Columbus as role model ...



Some landowners sneakily extend their walls to encroach on public paths. Once a property has changed hands many times, the access is lost forever, largely due to lack of enforcement and wishy-washy legislation. It takes a special kind of landowner to re-open or grant access, and one placard that read "Thank you Dr Flowers for Paiko's beach access" might have alluded to a good Samaritan landowner.

"There are only guidelines," says BAH co-founder Rich Figel, implying they're worth the shifting sand they're written in. A resident of Kailua, one of the most desireable beachside neighborhoods in all of the islands, Rich didn't think he had a problem until a neighbor's new construction meant he had to walk a long way to get to the next access point.

"We're looking for enforceable legislation. At the very minimum, we're just talking about being neighborly here," said Rich. He then handed me his sign and dashed off to liaise with the media, so I spent the day clutching it and waving it around and hopefully making myself useful.



Peter Cole, a big surfing name in Hawaii who is lucky to live on rasonably "have nots"-friendly Sunset Beach, was particularly critical of the aloha-less "rich and greedy" people, as he called them. "People have to understand that when they buy beachfront property, the beach is not theirs, it's public."

There's a phrase "rich people ruin everything." In fairness, the rich have what it takes to Martha Stewartize a dodgy neighborhood. But things go pear-shaped when a certain threshold is crossed, that is - when the average house price hits $700K.

The least aloha I have ever experienced was from the haoles on the island of Kauai, land of illicit granny flats, insane road rage and inflated housing prices. I had to spend two nights sleeping in a friend's car, and was saved from some serious Anahola campground peril only by some local Hawaiians. You won't catch me going back to Kauai in a hurry, I don't care how scenic it is.



Are resorts to blame too?

"Resorts are legally required to provide access as part of their permit, but the problem there is parking," said Rich. "They're restricting parking in their immediate area, making it something you have to pay for if you don't snag one of the free handful of spots." Paying for parking in their own backyards is not something locals are jazzed about.

"Free beach access is what makes Hawaii so special," said one demonstrator.

Now to be fair, you can appreciate a beachfront homeowner's beef - noise, litter and traffic jams are extras he or she didn't eagerly pay $1m+ for. But them's the breaks.

It reminds about an article on Curbed.com where someone bought a bargain brownstone in Harlem NY, and wanted to banish the noise and delinquency at this doorstep. Hello, said several commentors, you bought a cheapie in NYC, wake up and smell the crack! I'm even more amazed at people who buy near long-established bread and chocolate factories and expect the delicious stench to cease and desist. Have they not heard of "I got here first?" Oh that's right, Christopher Columbus ...

But here's the bottom line: blocking access doesn't make the problem go away - it just shifts the offending mess down the road. Continue that around the island and you come full circle.

Back to the rally. I was offered a place on the jolly crusading trolley car by friend and author Cynthia De Rosier (The Surfer Spirit), a big time surfer gal.

The crusade was preceded by speeches at the Honolulu's State Capitol building, a unique and imposing edifice modeled on a volcano and flanked by columns suggestive of towering coconut palms.



Notables included Senator Gary Hooser, resplendent in a Hawaiian shirt under a navy blue suit. Hey, if you have to do an office job and wear a great bag of fruit, make sure it's in Hawaii! Hooser says he introduced "Bill 2835" that insists permitting agencies breathe down the necks of developers. He told us that the access issue is not limited to golden sand and turquoise water - in the interior of the island, landowners blocking off access to established hiking areas and hinterland. What is wrong with people? Don't they know you can't take it with you?

After rousing speeches by other representatives of the various action groups, we boarded the trolley car and, waving placards and the Hawaiian equivalent of palm fronds, set off on a noisy, chanting and bell ringing route through Honolulu to Hawaii and back via Diamond Head.

Bystanders looked bewildered, but quickly smiled and waved the 'shaka' symbol after reading our big signs. Some probably thought we were a bunch of out-of work-surfer bums campaigning for the next smokeable thing since hemp, but they seemed few and far between.

At various key points along the route, demonstrators had gathered in the light rain with their placards and the trolley car met them to maintain the polite rage.

An open top Ferrari roared by and I entertained an uncharitable thought that it spends its nights curled up in an air conditioned garage with a wrongfully gated beach access, flanked by two concrete roaring lion gargoyles ...


Pictured right: A t-shirt I stumbled upon, appropriately, in Hawaii


In my unsolicited opinion, a big part of the problem is the insane auto-centricity on Oahu. I swear if you were loitering in the Ala Moana Blvd area you'd think you were in downtown LA, not on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the ocean, lit up and chugging along on a gargantuan bonfire of fossil fuel. The place needs a decent mass transit system like San Francisco's BART. Ten years ago a train was mooted here, but locals say the 'island mentality' of Hawaii gets nothing done fast, until it's too late and horribly expensive.

I hear an above-ground light rail has been re-proposed, but that like the monorail in Sydney, it doesn't go anywhere you want it to - and a ground-based solution would be preferable. Talking to Lean Shaman of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, I learned that bike lanes and a well-designed light rail system can actually bring order and calm to traffic, rather than rob the road of essential driving real estate. "I've received letters from motorists thanking us for bike lanes, telling me it's so much easier to drive there now," she said.

You can read the full details of the rally at this Beach Access Hawaii's blog entry and check out my loiterings here: Galfromdownunder in Hawaii



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