Note: This blog was originally published on July 29, 2009, updated in February 2013 and August 2016.
In honor of the successful closing by Hawaii Life clients on a very special oceanfront parcel in North Kohala, a blog post on what you need to know about buying oceanfront property in Hawaii seems appropriate. Most of this information is true on all the islands, but each has its peculiarities as does every property for sale, so be sure to check with your agent and do appropriate due diligence if you are considering oceanfront or beachfront real estate in Hawaii.
Considerations in Buying Oceanfront Property in Hawaii
Setbacks? Shoreline trail? Conservation zones? There are both state and county controls on oceanfront properties in Hawai’i. So, taking it from the top…
Much as in coastal states on the Mainland, Hawai’i is actively engaged in the conservation and restoration of coastal resources. The state also has land use maps, which classify all land into four categories (oceanfront typically being classified as “conservation.”) In addition, each County (island) has its own zoning and planning rules.
The term “Special Management Area” is one you will learn if you buy oceanfront property. All coastline is subject to a state layer of shoreline protection in addition to the County rules. Any construction in that zone (even for utilities, landscaping, or a dog run) will require a special permit and sometimes an environmental impact assessment.
On the Big Island, a larger property might have dual zoning, with a conservation strip on the makai (ocean) edge. The parcel our buyers just purchased has a 200-300′ wide section zoned conservation along the oceanfront, although the parcel has agricultural zoning. Not only is building in the conservation area prohibited, but you know those big trees obstructing your views? Hold that chainsaw until you’ve checked environmental regulations or filed for a minor SMA permit!
In fact, if you are buying in a newer oceanfront subdivision on the Big Island, the planning department will have mandated that the entire oceanfront belong to one parcel (meaning most of the “oceanfront” parcels do not truly extend to the edge). That simplifies the new owner’s understanding of their property lines. Our clients bought a parcel that was not part of a recent consolidation and resubdivision, so newer County planning policies did not apply.
This oceanfront in North Kohala lost part of the cliff in the 2016 earthquake. Listed for $10,500,000 (MLS# 292652)
Shoreline Certifications, Setbacks & Existing Residential Structures
In “The Purchase Contract Made Simple: A Closer Look at Buying and Selling a Home in Hawaii,” the authors give this tip:
The Careful Salesperson…will not include the square footage of the land portion of the Property, particularly if the land borders the sea and its boundary is subject to erosion and accretion.
Although I can think of a few Big Island homes hanging dramatically over the shoreline, currently structures need to be set back a minimum of 30-40 feet from the vegetation line or cliff top depending on land use classification and zoning. And that boundary is subject to erosion…well, you get the picture.
If you are considering an oceanfront property with an older residence along Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona or the ocean side of Puako, it may turn out that the structure is “legal nonconforming.” That means that with todayʻs shoreline and todayʻs setback requirements, it is in violation. As soon as you begin renovating, the County will require you to meet todayʻs requirements, which will likely add to your costs and might make the renovation you envision infeasible.
This classic oceanfront Puako cottage for $2,950,000 is closer to the ocean than allowed today (MLS# 287934)
Shoreline Public Access Rights in Hawaiʻi
Then there is the issue of public access. You may remember from your visits here being told that “no beach is private” in Hawai’i. You can drive right up to the gates of the Mauna Kea Resort or the exclusive Kukio community, and as long as there is space in the public parking lot, you can use the beach along with anyone who owns or pays to stay there.
It does not always register with prospective buyers that if the ocean frontage of a parcel is pali (cliff) rather than beach, the right of the public to access the shore is the same. As one friend of mine who happens to own an oceanfront residence in North Kohala puts it: this isn’t Malibu!
Beaches are generally used for recreational activities such as swimming and surfing, but even the wildest looking shores in Hawaii may be traditional fishing areas. And here in North Kohala, the shorelines often are also of cultural significance, where archeologists uncover old taro terraces, and locals and tourists alike visit heiau (sacred sites).
From Upolu south through the Kohala Coast resorts and the Kona districts, the old shoreline trail called Ala Kahakai is now under the management of the National Park Service. Even if you buy oceanfront in a resort or gated community, the public still has the right to hike the trail between your residence and the ocean.
Our clients whose oceanfront land just closed were already living here on the Big Island so they understood the access situation well. During the due diligence process they had plenty of questions about pedestrian access, vehicular access, and traditional uses of that stretch of oceanfront.
Ranch at Puakea oceanfront trail, below a 20-acre parcel currently listed for $3,600,000 (MLS# 289479)
The Most Important Thing to Know About Oceanfront Property?
As the saying goes, there will only ever be just so much oceanfront. If you are privileged to live on a piece of it, count your blessings to the beautiful sound of the waves at your doorstep.
A hui hou,
Beth Thoma Robinson, R(S)