KANEOHE — For those who’ve climbed up the Haiku Stairs all the way to the stunning Puu Keahiakahoe summit to take in the view of the lush Koolau mountain range, the experience could seem, well, priceless.
The main impediment to doing so, in recent years, has been the early morning wake-up necessary to sneak in before a security guard arrives at his post at the road below. His job is to prevent people from climbing up.
There’s also the back way for those who want to sleep in. The risk there are wrong turns and narrow ridge lines that make footing all the more important.
But the obstacles to climbing the “Stairway to Heaven” are growing. For one, it now requires a $1 million insurance policy.
Even at that cost, nothing is guaranteed.
On Monday, Honolulu City Council members Joey Manahan, Kymberly Pine and Ikaika Anderson planned to hike the “Stairway to Heaven,” which has been off-limits to the public for years. (This hasn’t stopped adventurous trekkers from waking up in the middle of the night to slink up the ladderway before dawn.)
Manahan, who heads the city’s Parks Committee, has been exploring the possibility of reopening the stairway to hikers. But in doing so he’s inadvertently stepped into a bureaucratic quagmire that could keep one of Oahu’s most alluring trails off the maps of hikers — at least officially.
Just after sunrise Monday, Manahan, Pine and Anderson met in the parking lot of Kaneohe District Park. Manahan and Anderson had traded in their work suits and lei for t-shirts and running shoes. The former sported boardshorts and a bag slung over his shoulder. Pine was equally as sporty, wearing a dark baseball cap, sunglasses and athletic apparel. Together they looked ready for a hike.
The council members had planned the meeting for weeks, even passing a resolution on Aug. 7. They planned to investigate the stairway in accordance with Hawaii’s Sunshine Law, which regulates when elected officials are allowed to meet to discuss policy matters.
But before they reached the actual stairway, their hike was cancelled by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply. It was a matter of jurisdiction. The board had just taken over responsibility for the metal stair case.
“Certainly, we didn’t expect this,” Manahan said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this difficult.”
For years, the city assumed the stairs were the under the purview of the Honolulu Parks Department, which had paid a private firm to hire the security guards who patrol the base of the trail to turn trespassers away.
It turns out that the city was wrong. City officials had done some research after Manahan proposed his resolution and found out it’s the Board of Water Supply — a semi-autonomous city agency — that has control over the stairway. And the board has some strict rules when it comes to walking on its turf.
Manahan had invited the Friends of Haiku Stairs, a nonprofit made up of volunteers, to act as a tour guide for the council members. The nonprofit has long enjoyed city-approved access to the stairs to do maintenance, pick up trash that hikers have left behind and fight off invasive species.
But last week the Board of Water Supply asked Friends to provide proof that the nonprofit had a $1 million liability insurance policy. This was in addition to asking its members to sign two lengthy waivers, one of which said access to the stairs would be prohibited, making the need for an insurance policy pointless.
While council members didn’t have to provide the same proof of insurance — they are covered by the city — they still weren’t allowed access to the stairs under the board’s rules.
(Civil Beat was also asked to sign the same waivers and provide proof of a $1 million policy. We declined.)
So instead of climbing the 3,922 steps to the top of the Haiku Stairs, the council members rode in a shuttle to the locked entrance. They also explored possible sites for initial trail access that would cut down on conflicts with a nearby neighborhood.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has said that resolving this neighborhood dispute is a key step in reopening the stairs to the public. The city has planned to make hiking the stairs legal in the early 2000s — even spending about $900,000 to revamp the trail — before ultimately backing off that plan.
Vernon Ansdell, who is president of Friends of Haiku Stairs, said the council’s interest in re-opening the stairs gives him hope that a solution can be found to open up the unique hiking trail.
That said, he’s concerned with the board’s $1 million insurance policy requirement and the fact that it has effectively blocked all access to the stairs. Together, he said, these restrictions could be seen as tactics to keep his nonprofit from continuing its maintenance work on the trail.
“It’s potentially a complete showstopper for us,” Ansdell said. “If they start putting up all these barriers and we can’t do any of the work that we normally do, it could be it for us. … They’ll just let the steps fall into disrepair.”
Still, he wants to give the city and the Board of Water Supply the benefit of the doubt.
“I remain cautiously optimistic that this is a conservative group of people who got freaked out by the potential responsibility,” Ansdell said. “And I hope it’s only a temporary thing.”
The board’s top administrator, Ernest Y.W. Lau, told Civil Beat that the agency has the same policy for all its properties.
Any private group, whether its media or nonprofit, must provide the same $1 million liability insurance certificate, he said. Lau added that stairway management is a new endeavor for his agency since it took over from the parks department, and it is something that will likely be revisited.
“We’ll be in discussions with Friends of Haiku Stairs,” Lau said. “(But) we have to make sure the liabilities are gone.”
Whether this means the stairs will ever fully open up to the public, however, remains uncertain.
Anderson said Monday that the debate over the Haiku Stairs has raged on for at least a decade. Much of the back and forth has to do with complex land ownership issues, he said; the city, state and Kamehameha School all have property in the vicinity.
“I’m not confident that we’ll get all the agencies, city, state and private, to reach a consensus,” Anderson said. “Over the past ten years we have come nowhere close. If history tells us anything it’s that there’s no consensus at all to open the stairs.”
This is true at the Honolulu council level too, Anderson said. He doesn’t have a sense of what direction the nine-member council would lean if it was forced to make a decision on the stairs. But he also noted that the final say doesn’t rest with the council.
That’s up to the mayor, he said.