Kailua Beach Park: The Anti-Waikiki


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The Windward Side has been mushrooming with tourism, but no one wanted it to turn into another Waikiki. Almost a year after Kailua residents took back their beach parks with a ban on commercial activity, liberating them from the fleets of kayaks, strings of Segways, even the bouncy houses dotting the shoreline–we take a look at how the ban has impacted the ever-more-crowded Windward community.
 

Kailua Beach Park: The world’s No. 1 beach in 1998, according to Stephen Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, something people in Kailua people boast about to this day. It’s the beach of choice for the commander in chief during his yearly visits home. The beach has become a must-visit destination for tourists, either for the duration of their trip (many of whom stay in illegal vacation rentals), or as just as a day trip to venture outside crowded Waikiki.

Accolades aside, it’s also the neighborhood beach for the approximately 38,600 residents who call Kailua home. And those who lived there long enough had witnessed their once sleepy, small town significantly transformed in the past decade—in ways not everyone liked. When tourists “discovered” Kailua, tour bus companies saw new business opportunities and bigger profits, and started regularly dropping off busloads of Japanese tourists in town, and at the beach park. Local businesses got in on the action, too, particularly water-sports rental companies. The beach, known for its fine, powdered-sugar sand and clear water, were soon more crowded than ever.

Kailuans deemed it a takeover of their town, their beach. Something had to give. Residents stormed Honolulu Hale, where the Honolulu City Council introduced bills, held hearings and heard emotional, passionate testimony. In the end, commercial activity—every form of it, from participating in a yoga class to renting a kayak—was banned from the beach park.

Fast forward 10 months, and it seems many people are satisfied, with the exception of the business owners who worked at the beach. The community got its way, and tourists, well, they’re vacationing in Hawaii. This is life on Kailua and Kalama beach parks, post-ban.

 

“It had gone beyond carrying capacity.”

City Councilmember Ikaika Anderson never intended to ban all commercial activities at both Kailua and Kalama beach parks. But, after two bills, numerous, often heated Council hearings and community forums, that’s exactly what he voted for.

“When I first introduced the bill, I had suggested that we allow for limited commercial activity use. The original bill would have set a cap on the number of commercial activity permits at Kailua Beach Park and Kalama Beach Park,” he says. But, the bill was amended after receiving harsh community feedback. “They didn’t even want regulation, they wanted it gone.”

The biggest problems? “The kayaks, of course,” says Anderson, “And the commercial bus tour operations, where you’d have sometimes five or six stage-coach tour buses parking at the Kailua Beach Park boat ramp parking lot.”

Yet, after months of deliberation, and overturning former Mayor Peter Carlisle’s veto—he feared it would open the door for other neighborhoods to make similar restrictions—the Council banned all commercial activity on Aug. 15. “I was fine with allowing the bouncy houses, I was fine with allowing the Segways, I was fine with allowing the commercial bicycles,” says Anderson. “But, in discussion with our attorneys, we were told that we really could not discriminate, if the ordinance was going to withstand any legal challenges.”

Anderson, who has represented the Windward Side for four years, says he’d be open to amending the ordinance. “This is an issue that can always be revisited,” he says. That’s something that may take a while, though, he says. “There may always be that underlying fear that if we allow [permits for commercial activity], we may go back to what we were trying to get away from.”

For now, Kailua’s beaches, “the jewels” to which both residents and tourists are attracted, are worth restricting, Anderson says. “The area, I believe, has already gone beyond our carrying capacity,” he says.

But he feels that a prohibition of commercial activity is helping to restore the balance. Now, when he goes to Kailua Beach Park, he may still get stuck in traffic, but at least once he hits the beach, there are fewer kayaks.

 

“Commercial activities are appropriate here.”


Bob Twogood, the owner of Twogood Kayaks Hawaii lost half his business as a result of the commerical-activity ban.

Many Kailua residents may be happy with fewer kayaks and windsurfing boards in the water, but for Bob Twogood, owner of Twogood Kayaks Hawaii, the commercial activity ban has drastically altered his business. In fact, it’s more than cut it in half. “I’ve laid off over half my staff,” he says. Twogood has been in business for 32 years, and rents to both locals and Mainland tourists.  

“I think the law that was passed was unnecessarily extreme,” he says. “There are a lot of commercial activities that are appropriate for the park and don’t interfere with the use of the park by the residents that live in Kailua. And, you’ve got to remember, this is a City and County park, it’s for people from Mililani who also want to come over.”

Twogood’s shop on Hamakua Drive is almost three miles from Kailua Beach Park. Pre-beach-activity prohibition, employees would give kayakers a brief lesson, load up the kayaks onto trailers and drop everyone and everything off right by the park. Now, renters have to strap the kayak to their cars themselves—much less convenient.

“What would be reasonable, and I think the residents of Kailua would support this, is a permitting system that allows limited commercial activity that is appropriate for the park, that is enforced,” he says. He feels public opinion is on his side, and hopes to have a professional survey demonstrating as much completed this month, in hopes of starting the conversation to amend the ordinance. “I don’t think this issue is over.”

Until then—if that ever does happen—Twogood does what he can to keep his business afloat in the face of a law aimed squarely at businesses like his.

There may be a commercial activity ban, but head to Kailua Beach Park any day, and you’ll still see lots of yellow kayaks, likely from Kailua Sailboards and Kayaks. Because of its location within walking distance of Kailua Beach Park, the company reaps the benefits of the ban, and now enjoys a functional monopoly on kayak rentals. The owner wouldn’t return our calls, so we decided to rent a kayak and experience the scene ourselves.

It’s an overcast Friday morning, but Kailua Sailboards and Kayaks, in the Kailua Beach Shopping Center, is bustling. As HONOLULU Magazine digital media manager Christine Hitt and I arrive in the parking lot, a guide shows a group of Japanese tourists how to hold a paddle.

After we sign a liability waiver and pay a $3 permitting fee to paddle out to the Mokuluas (on top of the base $69 half-day rate), we watch an instructional safety video. Then we strap on life vests, grab our kayak and cross the street to the beach. I can see how, in a large group, this could create a traffic jam. Unlike the tourist group, we weren’t given any paddling tips. I’m guessing the group purchased a guided tour, advertised on the Kailua Sailboards website for $129 to $155 per person.

We put our kayak into the canal and easily launch into the ocean. Our first stop: Popoia, aka Flat Island, home to hundreds of wedge-tailed shearwaters. There we saw the same group of six Japanese tourists, led by a tour guide. There were a few other kayaks already beached on the sand, the majority of them stamped with the red Kailua Sailboards logo.

After exploring Popoia, we began the journey to Mokulua Nui. About 45 minutes later, we crash-landed onto the beach, wedging our kayak in between a line of about 15 other kayaks, most of which, again, were rented from Kailua Sailboards.

There were almost 30 people already on the islet, including another Kailua Sailboards tour group, this time of Mainland tourists. We also saw a guy with a small dog, ignoring the huge blue sign in front of him reading, “No dogs allowed.”

The clouds grew increasingly ominous, so we decided to head back, paddling noticeably more slowly on the return trip. Eventually we made it, although at one point the kayak turned sideways and we flipped over. A couple sitting nearby laughed. We made it back to Kailua Sailboards just as the first raindrops fell. As I drove home, I thought about the day. I can see the appeal; if I were on vacation, I’d want to spend time at Kailua Beach. Yet I can also see the hassle a fleet of kayaks can create for local beach-goers.

 

“A safe, big open park.”  


Stroller Strides instructor Becky Zienkiewicz.

“That’s it ladies, five left!” A circle of 13 moms, all on colorful yoga mats, surround instructor Becky Zienkiewicz as she calls out different calisthenics. The women do crunches, push-ups and planks. The Eagles play on Zienkiewicz’s iPhone and mini speakers. Some women have babies in nearby strollers, a couple of them have to momentarily leave the workout to chase down their wandering toddlers.

Zienkiewicz leads Stroller Strides, fitness classes for women, using, you guessed it, strollers. It’s part of the national organization Fit 4 Mom. The Kailua native says she took over the Windward franchise about a year and a half ago. “No one said anything about a permit,” she says, her daughter playing behind her. She then started attending community meetings, along with some other moms, “even during nap time,” she says, to seek out more information and petition to get a permit, but it didn’t happen. Then, one day, a police officer asked them to leave the beach park; the class, for which Zienkiewicz charges each woman $60 a month, violated the commercial-activity ban.

These are the sort of gymnastics Zienkiewicz has to go through: The thrice-weekly classes now take place at Lanikai Beach Park. But Zienkiewicz had to go through a formal process to hold workouts there, and she pays dues (totaling 7 percent of what she makes from Fit 4 Mom), neither of which was required at Kailua Beach Park. “It was important for me to keep it going,” she says, adding that, while she’d prefer to be at Kailua Beach Park, she’s thankful to be at Lanikai. Outside of exercising, the women also hold a monthly girls’ night out and do community events around town.

But, every Tuesday, from 8:45 to 10 a.m., you’ll find Zienkiewicz and a dozen of her students all with similar three-wheeled strollers jogging along the bike path in Kailua Beach Park. But this class is now described as a social get-together. Almost a year into the ban, Zienkiewicz says they can be at the park without anyone bothering them, they just can’t hold regular classes there.

“It’s a shame we can’t be here, this is what parks are for,” says Kari Graden, who has attended Stroller Strides since her daughter, now 7 months old, was a newborn.

“This has been such a godsend,” adds Molly Pearl, who has a son and an infant daughter.  “It’s a wonderful gift to be able to work with our kids and not worry about childcare. The women aren’t clique-y—this helps with our sanity!”

In a stroller-pushing, baby-bag-toting pack, the women cross the street to grab food and socialize at Kalapawai Market. Zienkiewicz is the last to head out. “Kailua beach is a big, open park,” she says, looking out to the water. “It’s safe, it has a paved path.”

$500: The fine for violating the commercial activity ban at Kailua and Kalama beach parks. Lawbreakers can also spend up to 30 days in jail.

50: The number of citations HPD issued in 2012 for violation of the commercial activity ban.

0: The number of citations HPD has issued so far in 2013.

Source: Honolulu Police Department

 

“We need to protect these special places.”


Respect the Mokes co-founder Erick Rusnak.

“The Mokuluas are training grounds for surfing, diving and learning how to respect the ocean,” says Erik Rusnak. “We consider the Mokuluas our church,” he adds with a laugh. In 2011, Rusnak, with his brother Tait and friends Kawika Lindsay and Dean Fujioka, founded Respect the Mokes, an organization dedicated to preserving and educating the community about the two offshore islets in Kailua Bay, home to 11 kinds of seabirds. You’ve probably seen some kamaaina sporting the Respect the Mokes T-shirts or bumper stickers on cars. (The group also has an active Facebook page, updated daily with scenic shots from Kailua beach.)

Rusnak, who grew up in Kailua, is glad commercial beach activity is prohibited. “Enough was enough.” He says he’d see “squadrons of kayak tours,” with back-to-back groups of 25 to 30 kayaks going to the islets—the most popular route for kayakers—and a lot more trash on the beach of Mokulua Nui, the larger of the two islets, to which everyone eventually paddles. “The biggest group now is eight kayaks,” he says.

Rusnak would know: He tries to paddle out to the Mokes six days a week. On Sundays, no one is supposed to go to the Mokuluas. “It’s a peace day on Sunday, to give the islands a break,” he says. It’s part of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ new permitting/conservation effort for the islets. It’s $3 per commercial kayak, with the money going toward conservation. (But, says Twogood, permitting is done on the honor system. No one has checked up to see that he’s actually collecting the money for the DLNR and filling out the paperwork.)

Permit enforcement aside, Rusnak says visiting the Mokuluas now is nicer, more enjoyable. “They shouldn’t be overused by commercial vendors. There’s plenty of room for business in Kailua, but we need to protect these special places,” he says. He then says goodbye, it’s time to paddle out to the Mokes.

 

“Kailua bay is a spiritual place.”

Kathy Erwin goes to Kailua Beach every day. She grew up in the Windward town, and views the beach, and the bay, with a more philosophical approach. “Walking and running the beach, paddling, swimming and surfing can be simply recreation, but, for many, Kailua Bay is a spiritual place.” Erwin, who works at Le Jardin Academy, has been paddling at Kailua Canoe Club for more than 40 years, a coach of the club for 25 of those years, and is currently the head coach.

It’s with that spiritual approach that she says many of the club’s members supported the commercial-activity ban. “Some [members] wanted a total ban, some wanted regulation or limited hours for commercial activity,” she says. “One thing everyone agreed on is that we want to preserve Kailua Beach as a gathering place, a playground and a sanctuary. We want everyone to contribute to keeping Kailua Beach beautiful for our children and grandchildren.”       

Kailua Canoe Club, founded in 1971, is exempt from the commercial activity ban, and, says Erwin, club members can still sell food and drinks during its regattas. But since the ban has been in place, it’s been smooth paddling for competitors on race day. Before, it was common for inexperienced kayakers to veer into the racecourse, especially the Kamehameha Day regatta in June. Practices are safer, too. “I have been nearly impaled by wind surfers while paddling my kayak,” says Erwin. She adds that dodging windsurfers aside, she doesn’t particularly mind. The club is a steward of the beach. “Some amount of sharing and helping is what we do and to be expected … There is a strong sense of responsibility now take care of the beach, to keep it clean and to protect it from exploitation.”   

 

“No one wants it to be a Windward Waikiki.”

Kevin Lockette and his family live right across the street from Kailua Beach Park. While he says the city has gone through some growing pains in the past two decades he’s called it home, he says it still retains its small-town, tight-knit sentiments. “It’s worth protecting,” says the father of two, who works with his wife, Ginger, as a physical therapist in Kailua. “No one wants it to be a Windward Waikiki.” Lockette explains that’s always been a fear. That, combined with an increased number of visitors, most of whom want to visit Kailua’s No. 1 beach, was the community’s impetus for the ban.

“It’s been way better, but I do feel for the local business owners,” he says. It hasn’t helped the traffic though, he concedes. “The weekends are just crazy. We live a quarter mile from Kalapawai Market and it takes 20 minutes to get past there. It’s faster to just walk.”

But the beach and its parking lot are calmer, he says. He no longer sees the trucks and trailers loaded with kayaks taking up four or five spaces when he walks his dog. The beach where he and Ginger taught their son and daughter, now teenagers, how to swim is less crowded. The conditions are agreeable for the family, all of whom are avid paddlers with the Kailua Canoe Club, to launch the outrigger sitting on their front lawn, later that afternoon.

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