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Maui Locals Assert their Rights to Public Land at Kapalua Cliff House

Maui Locals Assert their Rights to Public Land at Kapalua Cliff House
February 18, 2022 Anne Poirot
In Uncategorized

On Jan. 26, 2022, local activist Kai Nishiki posted a call-to-action for Maui locals on her Instagram, highlighting suspicious activities by a private land owner near Hawea Point in west Maui. Nishiki, among others, had noticed that the access ladder which had long remained at the popular jumping spot, “Cliff House,” had been removed. Signs had been posted declaring a nature reserve that encouraged visitors to keep down music for the sake of the conservation area, and, likely the most jarring change, a security guard had been hired to sit and maintain supervision of the area atop a pill box. The security guard’s role was to request that people be quiet, turn down their music, and to watch for underage drinkers.

Many locals are frustrated by private land ownership, and how it seems to have a slow-creeping impact on favorite local spots, not to mention ongoing issues with wealthy landowners imposing rules and regulations on what is actually public land. Cliff House is a special spot to many people, and on Saturday, Jan. 29, locals of all ages and backgrounds showed up to keep it public.

Located across from the Kapalua Cliff House, the jumping spot has public access via an easement, and is a popular local spot, generally referred to as “Cliff House.” The controversy regarding Cliff House began with a nearby property owner, Jonathan Yantis, removing the exit ladder from the popular cliff jumping spot last year. Yantis also placed signs along the pathway, requesting quiet along the Namalu Bay Nature Preserve. It was later confirmed by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) that these signs were not permitted. DLNR also confirmed that this bay, in fact, is not an official nature preserve.Furthermore, that the ʻuaʻu kani birds the signs claim to protect are doing quite well in the area, and are increasing in population despite any noise pollution. Travis Miller, local Honokowai resident, told Hawaii News Now that the impositions by Yantis were “Kind of a classic case of someone wanting to come here and change it, instead of letting it change them.”

The last straw for local Maui residents was the privately-hired security guard that had been posted at the Kapalua Cliff House. Yantis maintains that part of the security guard’s role is to act as a lifeguard. During a personal site visit in October of 2021, early on in the security guard’s hiring, he maintained that lifeguarding was not really at the root of his job description. The security guard was also meant to advise people against climbing on the pill box located on site, a popular vantage point for many visitors. Ownership of the pill box was recently confirmed by Hawaiʻi Land Trust and DLNR as falling under the area that is privately owned with an easement for public access. 

The Kapalua Cliff House and Hawea Point area is a coveted local spot where the coastline has otherwise been largely sectioned off for resorts, time shares, and scenic view restaurants, all infrastructure put in primarily to target vacationers. When visiting areas in Kapalua, Napili, and other bays and sandy beachfronts in west Maui, finding a place to park and walk to the beach is anything but easy. Although public access to shoreline is required by law, the resort areas of west Maui cover large stretches of coastline without convenient public access or parking. Despite being surrounded by resort-owned and operated lands, the Cliff House area remains a “local” spot, previously, although not currently, designated open space by the county and West Maui community plans. 

During an original interview with Nishiki on Feb. 4, 2022, she was asked if she thought the ladder would go back up at Cliff House. Nishiki states that the ladder being reinstalled would require a permit, but that the legality or illegality of the ladder was really not the point. “Bottom line, he’s being a jerk because he doesn’t like to hear the people of Hawaii doing what we do.” Nishiki also commented that, the way the social dynamic is today, “just going to the beach is now considered an act of protest…it shouldn’t be, it shouldn’t have to be, but that’s [the kind] how much we are kind of under attack here in Hawai’i that we can’t even go to the beach without this kind of thing occurring like really, really often.”

The protest which took place at Kapalua Cliff House on Jan. 29 was prompted by locals who were responding to the information provided on Kai Nishiki’s Instagram post, where she encourages locals to “have PLENTY fun at Cliff House as often as possible,” and “know your rights, be safe, #MalamaAina #LifePono and please, take your trash with you!” Yantis’ response to Nishiki’s call to action was that people should feel free to come to Cliff House. He stated that his intentions were only to fight noise pollution, which he would continue to do until he sold the property and moved to another place on island. 

The protest at Kapalua Cliff House was a lively event, with multiple loud speakers, cliff jumpers, and activists asserting their rights to their public land. Protesters were on site throughout the weekend, sometimes 100 to 150 people at a time, according to Nishiki, who also attended the event. The peak of the protest was Saturday, Jan. 29. Hawaiian music, flags, and impressive “gainers” (a skilled jump that requires a normal jump off resulting in a backflip) were in abundance in a peaceful protest against the possibility of imposing restrictions at the site. 

The protest was a non-violent event. However, there was an accident reported at 5:50 pm that a 19-year-old Maui resident fell 30 feet onto the rocks below the Cliff House during the gathering. Emergency first responders were called onto the scene and took the injured party to the hospital with multiple traumatic injuries. Confirmation of cause of the accident, or the resulting injuries has not been released to the public. Nishiki commented on this incident during her interview on Feb. 4, affirming that she had spoken with the injured party’s mother, and that he was at home resting and recovering. She said that many injuries happen all the time, all over the island. She maintains that Cliff House can certainly be a dangerous place, but that is not a reason to try to take away locals’ rights to be there.

After the weekend’s protests and criticism falling on Yantis, he appears to have verbally backed down on many of his previous allegations, saying that he is solely concerned about noise pollution in the area. He says he plans to sell his property to relocate to another part of the island to get away from the noise. According to Nishiki, Maui County will be out to assess the signs which were placed without permits and that Yantis may face a fine due to his actions. The protest also did shake the security company on site, with uncorroborated rumors that they were to pull out of their operation. As of now, the guard still sits at Cliff House. Hawaii Land Trust and DLNR were both contacted for comment on the issue, but did not reach out to provide any further information for this article.

Nishiki said she encourages state and county agencies to consider the impacts of adjusting land delegations and allowing landowners to build on what was technically previously open space land, such as Cliff House. She argues that, in instances such as this, conflict is inevitable. She, among other community members passionate about shoreline access continue to encourage people to know their rights, and provided the following resources: Surf?Fish?Dive? Access Denied Facebook Page to learn about upcoming events and discussions on Maui, and Kokua Our Coastlines to learn more about shoreline access rules and regulations. She also highlighted that the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project manages the public access trails around Cliff House, and will be encouraging volunteers to show up to help manage brush clearing from 9-12 am every Saturday in the month of February. Nishiki encouraged people to show up, do their part to assist in the maintenance of Maui coastlines, and see what is so special about Cliff House and keeping it public.

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