The City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on making it easier for the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to transfer the Haiku Stairs to another government agency — a key step if the popular but legally off-limits trail atop the Koolaus is to be saved.
But first, supporters will need to find a state or city agency willing to take on the job.
The historic stairs near Kaneohe served as a means for the U.S. Navy to access a secret radio station during World War II. Now, thanks in part to social media, thousands of hikers every year wake up early and trespass through private property to hike the “Stairway to Heaven,” which is guarded during daylight hours.
To hike the stairs legally, the Board of Water Supply requires proof of a $1 million insurance policy, but even that doesn’t guarantee access. Hikers have long called for the stairs to be reopened to the public, but nearby residents complain about cars parking in their neighborhoods, noise, vandalism and trespassing.
The city Department of Parks and Recreation, which had planned to take over responsibility for the stairs 12 years ago, is no longer willing to do so, according to a department representative who cited concerns that it doesn’t have the proper facilities, “expertise or ability” to maintain the trail.
Last week, the City Council Transportation and Planning Committee approved amendments to Bill 57 — an update of the July 2000 Koolaupoko Sustainable Communities plan — that would clarify that the owner of the Haiku Stairs is the City and County of Honolulu, not the Board of Water Supply.
Even though the board is a semi-autonomous city agency that is responsible for maintaining the property, the land owner is still technically the city.
For the stairs to reopen to the public, the BWS would have to find a willing government entity to accept responsibility. That would be easier to do if the bill is approved Wednesday, because no further law change would be needed to transfer ownership.
The amendments were introduced by Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who said they were requested by the Board of Water Supply. He said the board was interested in the area’s natural water resources when it took over the land, but is no longer interested in maintaining it.
In 2014, Anderson convened a task force to try to reopen the stairs by creating a controlled access point. The U.S. Coast Guard formerly used the Omega Station as an access point when it was in control of the stairs and he said he thinks it could be used again.
Hikers often trespass through residents’ private property — sometimes waking them and setting off car alarms.
No city or state entity has been willing to take over management of the stairs. BWS Manager and Chief Engineer Ernest Lau is only willing to pass them on to a government group — not a nonprofit. The state departments of Hawaiian Homelands, Land and Natural Resources have declined under two administrations, Anderson said, and the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation has been approached under three administrations.
Before anything happens, the mayor would have to approve of reopening the stairs, which hasn’t recently happened. Anderson said if he were mayor, he would have found a way to make it work.
“I don’t share that position, but again it’s not up to me,” Anderson said. “But this situation of leaving the stairs in limbo just can’t continue.”
If an interested government entity still cannot be found by the time the board’s environmental impact state is complete, Anderson said the stairs would have to be removed.
Even though the Board of Water Supply is a semi-autonomous agency, the city is still technically the landowner, said Matt Caires, chief of staff for Councilwoman Kymberly Pine.
“If anything, (the amended language) might be used later to justify who is the entity that would maybe tear down the stairs or not tear down the stairs,” Caires said, adding the bill puts a “cloud” over which entity has legal authority over the area.
The bill “could (make it easier) if the transfer was made to another department within the City and County,” said Barry Usagawa, Board of Water Supply program administrator for water resources. Usagawa worked with the City Council on the amendments and said the bill would not allow a transfer to a private owner.
The board released an environmental impact statement preparation notice in April that identified four options under evaluation: tear the stairs down, open them to the public, transfer them to another government entity, or do nothing.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell is waiting for the board to complete the EIS before taking a stance on the stairs, said his spokesman, Andrew Pereira.
The board’s stated preference in the document is to tear down the stairs because maintaining a recreation site isn’t within its mission of providing water to the public.
But Usegawa hesitated to single out any single option as a frontrunner and said all options are being evaluated equally. The board will have no choice but to remove the stairs unless another entity comes forward to take responsibility for them, he said.
Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota said the department is aware of the amendments being considered by the City Council, but said the department doesn’t want to take jurisdiction over the stairs.
One key problem for the Board of Water Supply is that the stairs are landlocked and surrounded by private property. Any transfer of the property should solve the issue of illegal access, Usegawa said.
“(The board’s) primary goal is to eliminate the Board of Water Supply’s liability,” he said. “… Our mission is to provide drinking water … not to provide a recreational” hiking spot.
The board received more than 700 comments from the public on the EIS preparation notice alone, and the next public comment period will open when the EIS is released.
Since the 1970s, former Friends of Haiku Stairs President John Goody has been hiking the stairs. He’s raised his kids “in the shadow of the stairs” and once helped maintain them, changing out rusty rails and cutting back foliage, back when the city Parks and Recreation Department kept them open to the public.
“We did that for 10 years until the Board of Water Supply realized they had ownership and immediately stopped everything in the way of maintenance and taking care of the stairs,” Goody said.
Though there’s no parking lot now, Goody said a parking lot can be built in the Haiku Valley to accommodate traffic and offset concerns from residents who don’t want trespassers on their property.
The stairs are still in pretty good shape thanks to an $875,000 repair under former Mayor Jeremy Harris in the early 2000s, Goody said. The city administration announced at that time the stairs would be reopened to the public, but that effort stalled due to conflicts over land ownership and access to the trailhead.
The larger goal would be to reopen the stairs as part of a larger public park that educates visitors about Hawaiian culture, Goody said. The stairs could handle 60 to 80 people per day, he said, and visitors could park at a dedicated parking lot, pay a fee of $50 to $100 and hike the stairs. The fees could pay for a 24-hour security guard to keep watch over the trail.
The Board of Water Supply spends almost $170,000 annually on security guards to ward off hikers in daytime hours, said spokeswoman Kathleen Elliott-Pahinui, and the department has been coordinating with a special duty policeman who patrols the neighborhood for hikers at random times.
Last month, security guards counted about 1,100 hikers on the trail — though the actual number could have been higher because of the hike’s many access points, she said.