In state lottery to operate surf schools at Kahalu‘u Bay, 3 of only 4 permits go to one owner
November 17, 2023, 11:16 PM HST
In the Old Kona Airport Pavilion on Friday, owners and representatives of 17 companies waited with deep anxiety as the State of Hawaiʻi held its first lottery to issue only four coveted permits to operate surf schools out of popular Kahalu‘u Bay.
The permits, which become effective Dec. 4, were chosen with the spin of numbered balls in a metal cage, which the state Department of Land and Natural Resources called “bingo-style.”
Tifani Green Stegehuis, owner of family-operated Hawai‘i Lifeguard Surf Instructors that operated out of Kahahuʻu Bay since 1998, did not get a permit. Her company didnʻt even make the top 10 of the wait list.
But one person, Wesley Moore, was awarded three of the four permits. And all of his three surfing companies were not even created until 2021: Kauakea LLC, Hinaea Iliahi LLC and Kona Town Adventures LLC.
It appears out of the three companies, Moore operates only one surf lesson operation: Kona Town Surf Adventures.
“It wasn’t illegal, but it’s not pono [right],” said Green Stegehuis, who was born and raised on the Big Island and grew up surfing at Kahalu‘u Bay. “… This is right before the holidays and this is when we get our income. Our entire family is like what now, come Monday?”
Dan Dennison, spokesperson for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources that held the lottery, said the three limited liability companies operated by Moore were set up as separate entities following state rules and laws and therefore none of the permits will be revoked.
A call to Moore for comment was not immediately returned Friday afternoon.
“If a permittee decides to give up a permit, it goes to the first in line on the waitlist,” Dennison said.
The fourth permit was awarded to Kahalu‘u Bay Surf & Sea, which according to its website has operated since 1997. The owner declined to comment about the lottery and being awarded a permit.
Although the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation preferred to issue permits based on seniority, efforts to obtain such authority through a law change were unsuccessful.
For more than five years, the state worked to address the overcrowding at Kahalu‘u with unpermitted commercial surf instruction companies, many of whom suit up their guests out of the back of a van or truck off the shoulder of busy Ali‘i Drive.
Public testimony was held in 2021 regarding the best way to operate the surf schools in the area. At that time, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources created eight permits where companies would operate in shifts: four in the morning and four in the afternoon.
That rule was amended in 2022 to implement four surf instruction school permits without shifts.
Ultimately, the state decided the fairest way to award those permits was through the lottery.
Those that did not get a permit were put on a waitlist in the event one of the successful winners relinquishes their permit or fails to file additional permit paperwork within the next 10 business days. The permits become effective on Dec. 4.
Green Stegehuis said Koloko Ponds is the only other place where a surf school can operate commercially in West Hawai‘i.
“For us, it’s Kahalu‘u or nothing,” she said. “Kahalu‘u is our one and only safe bay. From here, apparently, we’ll be operating illegally.”
Green Stegehuis described the underlay of Kahalu‘u Bay as a plateau. Surfers aren’t forced to navigate boulders and the reef, which are commonly found at Big Island beaches. There also is easy access from the road to the water.
After the lottery drawing, the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation leadership was peppered with questions from surf school owners. Many centered around enforcement and compliance, to whom to report issues, and the fairness of the process.
In setting up the lottery, the state said it was transparent about the procedure, rules and qualifications, and indicated that each successful permittee will have additional rules and regulations outlined in their permits.
The state Division of Conservation Resources Enforcement will enforce permit violations or it could be brought before the Board of Land and Natural Resources for civil enforcement.