6.25.2008

Permits Required for Beach Weddings

(Reprinted from the Maui News June 24, 2008)
Commercial wedding coordinators who want to arrange ceremonies on state beaches will be required to obtain right-of-entry permits from the Department of Land and Natural Resources starting Aug. 1.

State officials said the permits have been required all along, but that the department was beginning to enforce the requirement because of pressure from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to charge fees on commercial use of public-trust lands.

The news was greeted with dismay by about 70 wedding coordinators and planners who attended a DLNR informational meeting arranged by the Maui Hotel & Lodging Association on Monday at the Maui Prince Hotel.

Some said the change would destroy the Maui wedding business, especially if it goes into effect so soon. They asked for more time.

“We are trying to keep the brides happy,” said the Rev. Ayesha Sandra Lee Furumoto. “They will be spreading all kinds of painful information all over the Net,” she said, adding, “Soon nobody will want to come to Maui.”

Many in the crowd agreed that if coordinators must get permits, they would prefer an open, annual right of entry, rather than a series of individual permits.

Morris Atta, the acting state land administrator, said he would report the industry’s comments to DLNR Chairwoman Laura Thielen, but added that he could not change the start date of the new policy on the spot.

He said annual permits are “on the table.”

Atta also announced a statewide pilot project to gather information from DLNR staff and the wedding industry, about which beaches are used, when and how often.

While some planners urged the state to hold off on enforcement until a thorough study of the industry and its impacts was complete, Atta warned that would mean requiring an environmental assessment on the wedding industry — something operators probably don’t want.

He said it is currently not clear whether an EA or a more elaborate environmental impact statement could be required to measure the impacts of the industry on the public resource. But for now, the department’s position is that the commercial wedding impact is not significantly different from other uses of beaches that have not had to do EAs — things like baby luau and private weddings.

To the many who objected, citing that the wedding business has done a good job of policing itself, Atta said that the issue driving the permits was the pressure on his department to institute fees for commercial use of public-trust lands.

“We have been lucky — I emphasize lucky — not to have been sued. OHA has sued us for everything we have not charged a fee for (on public-trust resources),” he said.

“We have a public-trust responsibility to oversee these resources,” he said.

Wedding coordinators raised a flurry of practical questions at Monday’s meeting:

• If permits are issued for a particular location on a certain day, what happens “if it’s raining at Makena?” asked Sandy Barker. Now, planners can look for a dry beach.

• The Rev. Ron Winckler wondered what the turnaround time on permits would do to the large number of weddings that arise “when a boyfriend and girlfriend are here and after a couple of margaritas decide they want to get married right now.”

• What would happen if some operators put in for multiple weddings on a special day?

The wedding business is way down, according to those in the industry — Winckler said it’s fallen by half since the boom that followed Sept. 11, 2001 — and further interference could finish it off, some said.

Several cited bad reviews on the Internet over the county’s crackdown on transient-vacation rentals as one of the reasons the wedding business is in decline.

The wedding planners were alarmed by the prospect of getting — or possibly not getting — rights of entry for weddings they already have booked and received payment for.

Even if they have the permits, a typical fee of $150 added to the wedding bill will be a problem.

“We are going to get sued,” said Barker.

Several planners voiced suspicions that either the state was trying to raise revenue on the backs of the wedding business or is out to shut it down altogether.

Neither, said Atta. The permit fees barely will cover the administrative costs of issuing permits, he said. And the initiative for Monday’s informal meeting came from state Tourism Liaison Marsha Wienert, who historically has been a strong supporter of the wedding industry.

Atta said he understood the frustrations of the business operators. He pleaded for constructive options from them.

“What we are looking for would be something of a self-regulating system,” he said.

It was one of only a few statements of his that was applauded.

• Harry Eagar can be reached at heagar@mauinews.com.

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