Hawaii County is considering restricting public access to a popular, scenic destination many consider culturally sacred.

The goal of Bill 217 is to protect Waipio Valley and mitigate safety hazards by closing the single-lane road from the lookout area to the valley floor to pedestrians, according to former Hawaii County Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who sponsored the bill before being termed out.

The pressure of up to 400 cars and 200 pedestrians a day on the crumbling roadway is too much for the historic, sensitive area, Poindexter said.

“The life of the valley, we want to protect that,” Poindexter said.

Opponents say the rule is unfair, blocking the only pedestrian access into Waipio, which sits on the lush northeastern end of Hawaii Island.

The sponsor of a bill to close the Waipio Valley road to pedestrians says it’s threatened by too much foot traffic. Courtesy: Ed Johnston

They say blocking the road would keep people from using public land, essentially turning it over to private landowners who live in the valley.

“I’m puzzled by it, honestly,” said island resident and Waipio visitor Ed Johnston. “I don’t understand this at all.”

Johnston pointed to the relatively few accidents reported on the roadway. The last vehicular fatality was about 18 years ago, he said.

The benefits of access far outweigh any perceived safety risks, he said, including a mile-long beach at the valley’s floor, the state’s Muliwai trail and its campground and the mauka-makai King’s Trail, all of which can only be traversed on foot.

If the road is closed to foot traffic, hikers who drive down instead won’t have anywhere to park, he added.

“It seems like they’re oblivious” to the public benefit, Johnston said.

Poindexter, who termed out of office this month, said that the pressure on the valley and the road has been an issue for decades.

The road is in desperate need of repair, she said. Poindexter sees restricting access to foot traffic as only the first step. She and other council supporters are looking at blocking vehicle traffic as well, but that will take longer because of the various agencies and jurisdictions that would have to sign off on it.

“We’re working on it. It’s a little more complex,” Poindexter said at a recent virtual forum on the issue. “We have not disregarded that.”

The Waipio Valley is home to taro farmers and the site where King Kamehameha was hidden from warring clans as a newborn.

Other possibilities would include restricting vehicle permits or enhancing the rim and lookout area so that visitors could spend time there instead of traversing to the valley. A final comprehensive plan could include components of the various ideas, stakeholders said.

Opponents say the proposal would block people from accessing public lands. Flickr: E Palen

Among those who oppose the closure is Jackson Bauer, Na Ala Hele Trails and Access Program coordinator in the Division of Forestry and Wildlife for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“This bill would severely limit the public’s right to access public lands,” Jackson wrote in public testimony to the council. “This would include county-protected shoreline access to state shoreline and waters, forest reserves and both historic and recreational trials.”

Heather Kimball, who replaced Poindexter in the Hamakua District this month, said she wasn’t aware the issue had been moving forward until it came to a council subcommittee recently and made the local news.

“It fell in my lap, really, as far as timing and my term go,” she said.

But Kimball hosted the Facebook Live meeting, which brought together a dozen or so stakeholders, including Poindexter and nearby landowners Bishop Museum and Kamehameha Schools, as well as more than 30 others.

She’s still collecting testimony before the council hears the bill Wednesday. The bill would have to pass two readings.

“I’m still deliberating,” Kimball said. “I don’t want to put into place legislation that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Currently, the Department of Public Works is performing a technical study of the road’s integrity. Those results won’t be available until January, however.

The ban on pedestrians would not apply in emergencies. Owners, lessees and residents of the valley would be exempt, as would Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners exercising their traditional and customary rights.

Taro farmer and valley resident Jim Cain supports the proposal.

He said the volume of rental cars and hikers on the road makes travel nearly impossible for farmers trying to transport their goods. The dangerous situation is only getting worse the more Waipio Valley is promoted to the outside world, he said, so the time to act is now.

“We can do a better job,” Cain said.

Others, like Councilman Tim Richards, worry that closing access to Waipio would just put pressure on other nearby tourist destinations, like the popular Pololu Trail.

Kimball said she had concerns about that, as well as the possible unintended consequence of increased motor traffic on the road after foot traffic is banned.

On the other hand, she said, “I absolutely acknowledge something must be done.”

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