Parties in a long-running lawsuit over Laniakea Beach say they’ve reached a deal to keep the parking there for better public access, while installing guardrails and crosswalks so that visitors might cross the road in a safer, more orderly fashion.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation will continue to pursue either a major realignment of Kamehameha Highway at Laniakea, or a less expensive “wiggle” option to move the road slightly mauka, to help protect against rising seas.

The beach is popular with both locals and tourists — it’s a good surf spot that also attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to encounter the sea turtles that regularly go ashore there. It’s also an infamous traffic choke point that causes headaches for nearby residents trying to get across the North Shore.

Laniakea Beach Kamehameha Highway North Shore
Laniakea Beach has been a notorious traffic choke point along Kamehameha Highway on the North Shore. A new deal in a lawsuit aims to fix many of the problems. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

An agreement over how to fix the Laniakea corridor has been elusive for years amid city and state disagreements over the liability issues there.

But a deal finally came together June 17 in settlement proceedings with Hawaii Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabree, according to attorney Bill Saunders. He represents a group of North Shore residents, activists and surfers who sued the state over barriers to beach access there in 2014.

The new deal also involves the city, which will have to move back a cattle fence on its property mauka of the highway so that cars have room to maneuver and park, Saunders said. The DOT will install guardrails on the mauka side, leaving space for the cars to enter on the Haleiwa side and exit on the Waimea side.

Under the new terms, the DOT will also paint crosswalks on both ends, prohibiting people from crossing in between, Saunders said.

The agreement calls for a one-year trial period, Saunders said. There’s no deadline for the changes to take place — city and state officials must confirm which permits are needed first, he added.

The deal further prohibits the large tour buses and vans that often shuttle tourists to Laniakea from stopping there, Saunders said, although details on those vehicles’ size limits remain unclear.

The DOT separately confirmed its role in the agreement.

The agency has long sought to install barriers at Laniakea as a way to ease the area’s traffic woes. The 2014 suit successfully compelled the agency to remove barriers it had placed along nearly 1,000 feet of the road’s mauka side there about a year prior, blocking cars from parking.

VIDEO: Blake McElheny, who grew up on the North Shore, talks about community concerns over Laniakea.

The DOT has said it would only pursue the major realignment if it were able to install guardrails on the existing road, where the concrete barriers once stood.

The design changes outlined in the court agreement are hardly new. “This is exactly the same settlement we asked for in 2015, before the barriers were removed,” Saunders said Wednesday.

It’s not clear why an agreement was reached now, after years of battling over the beach in court.

Saunders said he believed it may have come together because he sent an email to city and state officials in late January asking for discovery and depositions of top officials, including Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and Ed Sniffen, the state’s deputy transportation director for its Highways Division.

The request included all communications between the city and the state regarding the Laniakea project, plus the pursuit of any third-party contracts for work done in the vicinity of the beach. Once he sought those items, officials started talking about a settlement, he said.

“I think putting pressure on Sniffen is what did it,” Saunders said. “But who knows.”

In a statement Wednesday, the DOT said “the health and safety on the corridor is our priority. As such, we are happy to share any and all statements or records relating to the Laniakea case.”

It was a “complex situation” in which “the city came to the table and agreed to plan and develop the parking area on the city land adjacent to the state highway,” the statement further read.

Saunders said they encountered a hold-up from the city for a long time, trying to get it to move back the fence on city property and make room.

“It’s just a cattle fence — c’mon,” he said.

However, Caldwell and city officials finally agreed to go along with the plan during a meeting in February, he said.

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