Although Hawaii has laws meant to preserve disappearing shorelines, beachfront property owners have been able to bypass them. That’s what happened at an expansive coastal estate officials say the Obamas will live in.
My cmnt: I’ve edited this for space and clarity. Click propublica (above) to read original article in its entirety.
As Barack Obama entered the home stretch of his presidency, his close friend Marty Nesbitt was scouting an oceanfront property on Oahu, the Hawaiian island where the two regularly vacationed together with their families.
A home in the nearby neighborhood of Kailua had served as the winter White House for the Obama family every Christmas, and photographers often captured shots of Obama and Nesbitt strolling on the beach or golfing over the holidays.
The prospective property was located just down the shore in the Native Hawaiian community of Waimanalo. Wedged between the Koʻolau mountains that jut 1,300 feet into the sky and a stunning turquoise ocean, the beachfront estate sprawled across 3 acres, featuring a five-bedroom manse, gatehouse, boat house and tennis courts. Fronting the property was a historic turtle pond that used to feed Hawaiian chiefs. Local families took their children to splash and swim in its calm waters.
The property had one major problem though: a century-old seawall. While the concrete structure had long protected the estate from the sea, it now stood at odds with modern laws designed to preserve Hawaii’s natural coastlines. Scientists and environmental experts say seawalls are the primary cause of beach loss throughout the state. Such structures interrupt the natural flow of the ocean, preventing beaches from migrating inland.
But the sellers of the Waimanalo property found a way to ensure the seawall remained in place for another generation. They asked state officials for something called an easement, a real estate tool that allows private property owners to essentially lease the public land that sits under the seawall. The cost: a one-time payment of $61,400. Officials with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources approved the permit, which authorized the wall for another 55 years, and Nesbitt purchased the property.
State officials and community members say the Obamas will be among the future occupants.
The easement paved the way for building permits and allowed developers to exploit other loopholes built into Hawaii’s coastal planning system. Nesbitt went on to win another environmental exemption from local officials and is currently pursuing a third — to expand the seawall. According to building permits, the Obamas’ so-called First Friend is redeveloping the land into a sprawling estate that will include three new single-family homes, two pools and a guard post. The beach fronting the seawall is nearly gone, erased completely at high tide.
Community members are now rallying against the proposed seawall expansion. Some are directing their criticism at Obama, who staked his legacy, in part, on fighting climate change and promoting environmental sustainability.
Obama’s personal office declined to comment, referring inquiries to Nesbitt. And Nesbitt, who declined to be interviewed, would not directly address questions about ownership, only saying that he and his wife bought the land and were “the developers” of the estate.
In written responses to questions, Nesbitt, now chair of the Obama Foundation board and co-CEO of a Chicago-based private-equity firm, said the steps he’s taken to redevelop the property and expand the seawall are “consistent with and informed by the analysis of our consultants, and the laws, regulations and perspectives of the State of Hawaii.” Any damage the structure caused to the Waimanalo beach, he added, occurred decades ago “and is no longer relevant.”
In Hawaii, beaches are a public trust, and the state is constitutionally obligated to preserve and protect them. But across the islands, officials have routinely favored landowners over shorelines, granting exemptions from environmental laws as the state loses its beaches.
Over the past two decades, officials have awarded seawall easements to more than 120 property owners, who have sometimes paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to bypass rules designed to protect the public shoreline, according to an investigation by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and ProPublica. Among those owners are business and real estate executives from Hawaii, the mainland U.S. and Japan; a former Honolulu City Council chair; and a former managing director of a large hedge fund.
Intended to protect homeowners’ existing properties, easements have also helped fuel building along portions of Hawaii’s most treasured coastlines, such as Lanikai on Oahu and west side beaches on Maui. Scores of property owners have renovated homes and condos on the coast while investors have redeveloped waterfront lots into luxury estates. Meanwhile, the seawalls protecting these properties have diminished the shorelines. With nowhere to go, beaches effectively drown as sea levels rise against the walls and waves claw away the sand fronting them, moving it out to sea.