A controversial measure giving the Legislature more authority to determine what is a public trail cleared a key Senate committee Tuesday.
But Senate Bill 2728, backed by Maui Sen. Kalani English, is particularly raising the eyebrows of a trail-advocacy group that has sued a Maui company over trail access.
Members of the organization Public Access Trails Hawaii are suspicious that the bill is an attempt to derail their ongoing lawsuit against Haleakala Ranch Company on Maui. The group filed a case against the landowner three years ago to gain public access to Haleakala Trail on Maui. The state joined the case as a co-plaintiff in 2013.
English said the proposal is a general issue and isn’t tied to any particular trails.
The original version of SB 2728 amended the state highways law to allow the Legislature to designate public trails. More than two-thirds of the Senate co-sponsored the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria and Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom.
On Tuesday, English amended the bill’s language. He said the new version clarifies that the Legislature has the power to set policy on what is a trail.
“It’s important because we have to reestablish the fact that the Legislature is a policy-making body,” he told Civil Beat after the hearing. “And so policy should rightly be made in the legally entitled body, which is the Legislature.”
Still, the measure is drawing the ire of dozens of Hawaii residents who say it unnecessarily limits existing state law protecting public trails.
The state Department of Transportation submitted written testimony supporting the bill. But the Office of Hawaiian Affairs opposed the measure, saying that it might confuse existing law and limit trail access for Native Hawaiians as well as the general public.
Tom Pierce, attorney for PATH, said the bill would undermine the organization’s lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial in March.
He pointed out that English’s bill has a retroactive effective date of Jan. 1, 2011. PATH filed its case against the landowner on Jan. 11, 2011.
Teri Gorman, spokeswoman for Haleakala Ranch Company, said the company has no position on SB 2728 and that the measure wouldn’t affect its lawsuit with PATH.
And English dismissed the idea that the retroactive date has any significance.
“It’s a date that I picked,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Pierce argued that the bill’s retroactivity raises a question that there’s more behind the bill.
“If Sen. English cannot enunciate what that compelling purpose with respect to the retroactivity position is, we think that it really underlines that there is something going on that he is not telling the public,” he said.
Emails from Haleakala Ranch Company president Don Young dated September 2013 suggest that English has corresponded with the company regarding the Haleakala Ranch Company’s conflict with PATH.
Young wrote on Sept. 5, 2013 that English and Galuteria met with the the head of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to discuss potential legislation regarding PATH’s lawsuit with the Haleakala Ranch Company. The company also sought a land exchange to keep the trail in exchange for other property.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources considered the land deal last month but decided to study the issue instead after several environmental and cultural groups opposed the idea.
SB 2728 goes next to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means.