I can remember holding up a sign on the side of the road when I was just a little grommet. It read “Save Sunset Beach.” The Japan-based Obayashi Corporation had plans for a mass development project (golf courses, heli-ports, the works) up on the Pupukea and Paumalu bluffs, which run along most of O‘ahu’s North Shore, otherwise known as the “seven-mile miracle.” The two-lane Kamehameha Highway, the marine protected area at Shark’s Cove, the sacred Waimea Valley, the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary just offshore and the series of curling natural wonders, including Pipeline, Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay, were not ready for a project of this size. Members of the community found themselves in a nerve-racking defensive position. What could we do?
I was about 15 at the time, and my parents probably made me join in the rally. I was more concerned with surfing and mountain biking than all of that grown-up stuff. Blake McElheny was one of the kids standing next to me during the protest because his dad, Larry McElheny, helped organize it and other efforts to raise awareness about the impacts a development of this size could have on our infrastructure, runoff, the nearshore reefs and water quality.
I never guessed that 15 years later I would be sitting in a meeting with Obayashi executives on the top floor of a skyscraper in Tokyo. I wore a wrinkled Aloha shirt. My friend Masuo from the Surfrider Foundation Japan was wearing a T-shirt. The executives were all wearing suits and the thought, “what the hell are we doing here?”, crossed my mind a few times. It was Blake’s fault. He set the meeting up, and since I was already doing a music tour through Japan at the time I couldn’t say no.
When you ask Blake a question, there is usually a long moment of silence before he gives you an answer. I used to find this silence uncomfortable but now I find it comforting. The words that emerge are always well thought out and have a direction. He knows what he wants to accomplish. He’s my only friend who could talk me into doing a power meeting.
After those initial protests when I was a kid, Blake’s dad, Larry, and many others, including Peter Cole Sr., Surfrider Oahu Chapter chair, led the charge and were able to postpone the proposed development. The bluffs sat silent as they had for years. The battle seemed over, and the North Shore community appeared to have come out on top. But eventually, the Obayashi Corporation decided to put the 1,129-acre property on the market. The easy trap to fall into at that point was to rest, hoping that no buyers with other development plans would come along.
Inspired by and building upon his father’s hard work, Blake and the next generation joined the conservation effort in growing numbers and focused on rallying community members to stand up for what they wanted. He and other residents founded the North Shore Community Land Trust (northshoreland.org) and suggested that we could raise enough money to buy the property and protect it forever. The concept was simple: Rather than being against developers, we are for the land. We are for outdoor recreation, youth educational programs, native plant and cultural resource restoration, protecting water quality, for protecting scenic views, and for natural areas and open space that anyone can enjoy. Suddenly, we found ourselves on the offense, rallying for what we wanted.
The North Shore community has since been able to mobilize an unprecedented and unlikely coalition, including the City and County of Honolulu, the State of Hawai‘i, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army Garrison Hawai‘i and private contributors, including Brushfire Records, the Freeman Foundation, Sole International Corporation, the Quiksilver Foundation (and seven-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater) and Patagonia, to commit financial support for the public acquisition and permanent protection of Pupukea-Paumalu. By working with the Trust for Public Land (TPL), our project partner, the community dream is within reach and the property is on track to be permanently protected as a public natural area by summer 2006.
The meeting around the big table in Tokyo ended up going very well, and a new relationship and cultural bridges were formed. The Obayashi executives said that over the years they had gained respect, not only for the North Shore area but also for the community’s dedication to preserving its natural beauty. They said that ultimately they would like to see the North Shore Community Land Trust purchase the property so that both they and the community would come out on top together.
Then, glancing at our casual attire, they reminded us that this isn’t a “kids’ game” and that the property was worth a lot of money. I assured them that I had friends like Blake McElheny back home (and other partners like TPL) who were real serious about all of this stuff and that they went through law school and everything. I told them that they didn’t look like surf bums like us (even though they do). The executives gave us comforting smiles and handshakes and said, “Good luck, we hope it works out.” So do I.