LAHAINA - Because commercial operators were not able to come to an agreement on which days to best close Mala ramp in Lahaina, the decision to schedule the 60-day closure to start March 17 was ultimately made by a coin toss Thursday afternoon.
A public hearing held at the Pioneer Inn drew about 50 commercial operators, fishermen and boaters who use the ramp.
Business owners who conduct whale-watch tours out of Mala vied to delay the closure dates until mid-March or later when it was no longer whale season, but thrillcraft operators wanted construction to start sooner so it would not to cut into their season, which runs from May 15 to Dec. 15.
Mala ramp and its north and south loading docks have become deteriorated. Commercial boat operators tossed a coin Thursday afternoon to settle a dispute over whether a 60-day closure for repair work should start March 10 or 17. The coin flip determined it would start March 17, which was preferred by whale-watch tour operators.
State Department of Land and Natural Resources photo
A couple of parasail company owners lobbied for a March 10 date, so that construction would be finished by May 10, giving them a week to prepare their boats for U.S. Coast Guard inspection before their season starts.
After nearly 30 minutes of debate, boaters were able to narrow the month to March, but they were unable to come to a compromise on March 10, which the parasail operators wanted, or a week later, March 17.
The coin toss, orchestrated by Curtis Powers of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, ultimately decided the ramp would be closed beginning March 17.
"We're not going to please everybody; somebody's going to be pissed off no matter what we do," Powers said at the meeting. "But we can't do it much later."
Two community meetings in June had originally led to the planned closure of the ramp during October and November. However, because the materials needed for the repairs did not arrive on time, in part because of the federal government shutdown, the ramp was never closed, boating officials said.
A project engineer with Goodfellow Bros., the company selected by the state to complete the $892,000 project, said that as of Thursday, "all items are within our control," and the engineer is still confident that the company will be able to replace the facility's two concrete loading docks within the allotted 60 days, the time frame provided for in its contract with the state.
At the start of the meeting, Maui boating officials suggested the ramp at Mala Wharf be closed "as soon as possible" in January, but commercial operators using the ramp protested.
"For us to have to operate out of Lahaina Harbor during whale season would be a total fiasco," Steve Juarez, owner of the Hawaiian Rafting Adventures/Dive Maui, told The Maui News after the meeting. Juarez operates dive tours and a few whale-watch charters out of Mala Wharf.
"January and February have the most cruise ships, which tie up most of the loading dock, there's no parking around Lahaina Harbor, and there's no place to stage our customers. We can't operate out of that harbor. It's so congested already."
Juarez added that, from an engineering standpoint, trying to complete construction in the winter months of January and February when the ocean surge and swells are the biggest "makes zero sense."
He had suggested the closure be scheduled during "the slow season" from April to June, instead of in March when businesses would lose out on spring break visitors. The March 17 date was "a compromise, a poor compromise but still better than January," he said.
UFO Parasailing office manager Tina Skjerseth, who called the coin toss, said that she would have been happier with the March 10 date, "but it is a compromise."
"Everybody's going to be inconvenienced at some point; we're here to find a happy medium, not to take one industry over the other," Skjerseth said at the meeting.
After the meeting, the longtime West Maui boater said she was content with the agreed-upon date and supportive of the coin toss that decided it.
"We've had meetings already, and the meeting of the minds has not come together," Skjerseth said after the meeting. "In the last meeting, we had (in October) no date was chosen because we couldn't agree."
"I'm supportive of us, the Maui boating community, picking the date instead of the state coming in and deciding for us, because they could've shut it down anytime," Skjerseth said.
Stacy Masuda, acting Maui District manager of the state Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, said that she had expected the meeting to last much longer but was happy that an agreement was reached within an hour.
"I honestly think that it (the coin toss) worked. It's unconventional, but (everyone) took it pretty well, I thought. They weren't complaining afterwards," Masuda said. "We can't make everyone happy. I'm happy we were able to even come to that compromise of March without fighting one another."
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.