Hawaii’s famous black sand beach could become a resort area

A proposed development that would transform one of Hawaii’s most famous black sand beaches into a new resort area — including condos, tennis courts, and a conference center — is facing backlash from the Native Hawaiian community.

Punaluu Black Sand Beach, one of about 20 black sand beaches in the world, is located along the southeastern coast of Hawaii Island in the Kau district. On any given day, tourists swarm the beach, parking illegally along the road. It’s one of the few places in the world where endangered hawksbill sea turtles, who are extremely sensitive to light and noise pollution, nest. 

Named Punaluu Village, the planned mixed-use development spearheaded by Black Sand Beach LLC, was formed from the acquisition of the 434 acres by Eva Liu, hailing from California, in 2020. The project defines itself as a “low-density 225-unit project” – downsized from its original plan of 2,900 accommodation units due to community feedback.

The new development aims to be “a learning and living space for the community,” according to Black Sand Beach LLC. 

Black Sand Beach LLC told USA TODAY it has invested over $1 million in restoring the land, such as removing rubbish, vegetation growth, and existing infrastructure left over from the initial development project in the late 1960s. The project was passed from developer to developer until 2006 when it was ownerless and fell into “terrible shape of disrepair,” the company said. 

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“Disturbed by the lack of local initiatives to revive the area, Eva felt an undeniable duty to intervene,” Black Sand Beach LLC said. 

For some Native Hawaiians who have lived in Kau for as long as they can trace their genealogy, the new development threatens the sacredness of Punaluu. “Our lahui (group) from Punaluu have been the stewards of this place,” said Maxx Phillips, Hawaii director and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a legal intervention in March opposing the development from receiving its permits.

Along with the restoration of some pre-existing facilities – such as a condominium, restaurant, golf course, tennis courts, a boat ramp and education center – the developer plans to build a wellness center, a two-and-a-half-story condominium, more commercial shops, a marketplace, a conference center with cabin retreats and parking facilities.  

Over 100 community members shared their testimony at a public hearing on March 7. A special hearing is set for Monday. 

“When you threaten to destroy the landscape, it’s like a threat to the family because our land is our ohana (family),” said Nohealani Kaawa, whose family has lived in Kau for many generations. The people of Kau are deeply connected to the land – certain places named in Kau and moolelo (stories) are named after the families. 

It’s also a literal connection – many of their ancestors are buried where the golf course was first built. 

“On a personal level, for me, our ancestors are buried there at Punaluu,” Kaawa said. “No matter where they build in their development plan, they’re going to uproot the bones of our ancestors and that’s the biggest disrespect you can do for the kanaka maoli of Hawaii (Native Hawaiian people) is to expose their iwi kupuna (ancestral remains) to the sun. That kind of disrespect is as real as being physically assaulted or having someone spit directly into your face.”

Along with cultural concerns, the community has stated environmental concerns and that the analysis Black Sand Beach LLC is using for its development plans is decades-old and outdated, not accounting for issues like overtourism. 

The development would impact the nesting of hawksbill sea turtles, Phillips said, and the area is already suffering from a failing wastewater system that leaks into the ocean and has yet to be repaired. “They haven’t even met the kuleana (responsibility) that they already have,” Phillips said.

Black Sand Beach LLC said its development is the “smallest footprint necessary” to bring money into the local economy and “care for these lands in a responsible manner.” The corporation said the development will be built at least a fifth of a mile away from the shoreline as well as move all commercial activity and parking off the beach to protect the turtles. Plans also include restoring the native fishing ponds and native vegetation. 

The community is torn over the new development. Some residents are in support of the development, stating it will help create “much-needed” jobs and “rejuvenate” Kau.

“It’s been really sad to watch,” said Kaawa. “It’s not just the community they’re dividing, it’s families.”  

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at kwong@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Proposed resort at famous Hawaii black sand beach faces backlash

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