Don’t Shut Down The Sandbar

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - June 15, 2011
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A recent weekend gathering at the Kaneohe sandbar. Jennifer Morihara photo

Tragedy provides opportunities for education and change. The recent death of a Kaneohe man from injuries suffered during a fight at Heeia Kea Pier on Memorial Day can provide such an opportunity.

Police say 26-year-old Nelden Torres hit the back of his head on the pavement after being knocked backwards during a fight. Witnesses say the men fought at the Kaneohe sandbar earlier in the afternoon, where an estimated 500 people had spent the holiday partying.

The tragic incident has reignited questions about some of the wild activities that go on at the sandbar and the need for change. The suggestions aren’t new. Allow use but only with a permit, ban alcohol - and the most drastic one, shut down the sandbar completely.

Policy makers also are weighing in, again. Windward Oahu Sen. Clayton Hee has proposed banning alcohol from the sandbar in the past. In 2008, Hee introduced a bill that failed to pass after being opposed by Kaneohe residents.†Hee says he may reintroduce the bill in 2012 following the latest incident.

When the tide is low and the estimated three acres of “land” are exposed, you’ll find sunbathers, fishermen, paddlers and family barbecues and picnics. It is a safe haven for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Oahu and enjoy the views of the Koolau Mountains and Kaneohe Bay.

But unlike state parks and beaches where alcohol consumption or even possession is illegal, there is no law prohibiting alcohol at the sandbar. Drinking also is allowed on boats as long as the vessel’s operator is sober. Sadly, not all operators follow the rule, which contributes to the already explosive issue.

On Labor Day 2005, a man was seriously injured when things got out of control with an estimated 400 party-goers on the sandbar. It happened again in 2007, when three men were injured after a brawl broke out between dozens of people.

In January 2009, an overloaded 36-foot boat sunk at the sandbar with an estimated 25 people on board. Witnesses say many on board were intoxicated. Several months later on Memorial Day, 100 vessels and an estimated 800 people blanketed the three-acre patch of sand. DLNR officers boarded eight vessels that day and issued 10 warnings for overcrowding and life vest violations, but no citations.

But besides these incidents, when do we ever hear about the sandbar in Kaneohe Bay? How often do we hear its Hawaiian name, Ahu o Laka? Or even its nicknames, “The Sunken Island” or “The Disappearing Island.”

Unless there’s been a brawl on Memorial Day, Labor Day or the Fourth of July, we don’t hear a peep about the sandbar. The reason: A majority of its users are respectful and spend their time there in a controlled manner. And remember, the sandbar is open every day of the year.

No, we don’t need new laws and regulations and we certainly don’t need to shut down the sandbar. What we need is better enforcement of what’s already in place. The state Department of Land and Natural Resources does it best with resources it has, but Big Brother can’t be everywhere.

Boat owners and drivers need to be more responsible for themselves and their guests or face consequences. If convicted for boating under the influence, an operator faces a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail, and could even lose their automobile driver’s license. Consistent enforcement of the existing law will get people’s attention.

The wild parties have frankly become too wild. Let’s hope we get it before drastic measures are taken. Unfortunately, the minority may have an impact on what the majority may have to face in the future.

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