Defending Public Beaches in Hawai`i

Earthjustice challenged an attempt by landowners to claim more of Hawaii’s beaches by redefining the line that divides public from private property.

Case Overview

The Hawai`i Supreme Court has issued a ruling strongly reaffirming that the shoreline in Hawai`i, which marks the boundary between public beach and private land, extends to the highest wash of the waves, and rejecting the use of artificially planted vegetation to determine the shoreline

The court, in a unanimous decision, reversed the state’s decision and held that the shoreline should be established “at the highest reach of the highest wash of the waves.” In so ruling, the court reaffirmed its long-standing precedent from the late-60s and early-70s, in which the court established the shoreline at the high water mark, “usually evidenced by the edge of vegetation or the line of debris left by the wash of the waves.” In recent years, the state and landowners misinterpreted this precedent to emphasize use of the vegetation line as the shoreline, even when the debris and wash of the waves extended further inland. The court’s latest decision rejected this misinterpretation and confirmed that the ultimate measure of the shoreline is the high water mark.

An aerial view on Na Pali coast on Kauai island in Hawaii.
An aerial view on Na Pali coast on Kauai island in Hawaii. (SergiyN / Shutterstock)

Case Updates

October 25, 2006 Press Release: Victory

Hawai`i Supreme Court Issues Landmark Decision on Public Access to Beach

Shoreline reaffirmed at highest wash of waves; use of induced vegetation rejected

October 25, 2006 document

Hawaii Public Beach Decision

Court ruling on definition of public beach in Hawaii.

July 25, 2005 Press Release

Citizens Challenge Process for Determining Shoreline, Public Beach in Hawaii

Emphasis on "vegetation line" in agency rules contradicts law, encourages abuse