Don't Impede Access To Public Lands In Waipio Valley - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Ed Johnston

Ed Johnston is a retired horticulturist who lives in Pepeekeo. In the 1990s, he was active in the five-year effort to open the shoreline access to Onomea Bay, now part of the statewide Na Ala Hele trail system.

On Wednesday, Dec. 23, the Hawaii County Council will consider a bill banning most pedestrians from the road into Waipio Valley.

This steep, narrow, public county road provides the only access to Waipio’s mile-long beach, as well as the state’s Muliwai hiking trail, its campground in the valley beyond and the mauka-makai King’s Trail, all of which can only be traversed on foot.

The state lands in Waipio and the valleys beyond it are scenic, historic and full of recreational interest, but if this bill succeeds hikers on foot will be banned. And hikers who drive down the road instead of walking will find there is no parking and will thus be forced to turn around.

Our expulsion will be complete.

In the entire Hamakua District (with its 50 miles of coastline), this road provides the only legal, county-designated shoreline access. If the county can impede access here, how secure will other rights-of-way be?

The first version of Bill 217, introduced by former Hawaii County Council member Valerie Poindexter, would have banned all pedestrians on the road. The bill was amended in committee to allow only Waipio landowners, lessees, residents and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners to walk there.

On November 17, despite overwhelmingly negative public testimony, the Committee on Public Works and Mass Transit advanced the bill to the council.

Opposition testimony from Jackson Bauer of the State Department of Land and Natural Resources Na Ala Hele Trails and Access Program noted that “the bill would severely limit the public’s right to access public lands.”

The road into Waipio Valley. Flickr: Wasif Malik

Bill 217 would defeat the purpose of state law on “Public Access to Coastal and Inland Recreational Areas,” which says:

“The absence of public access to Hawaii’s shorelines … constitutes an infringement upon the fundamental right of free movement in public space and access to and use of coastal … areas. The purpose of this chapter is to guarantee the right of public access to the sea, shorelines, and inland recreational areas …” (Sec. 115-1).

Access to public lands is meant to be equal. The law does not grant it to some while callously denying it to others. The County Code (Sec. 2-83) also mandates that the county afford “fair and impartial treatment” to “all persons.”

Bill 217 cites “safety” as its purpose, but the discussion has not been informed by evidence-based criteria or expert safety analysis. It has not been established how many pedestrians are too many.

Moreover, there was no analysis of how the road will be safer when pedestrians decide to drive down instead.

The consensus of the public testimony against Bill 217 is that the road’s real danger lies not with pedestrians but with tourists not knowing how to drive their rented four-wheel-drive vehicles or the rules for driving that particular road.

An analysis of accidents on the road does not substantiate Poindexter’s claim that pedestrians are creating “a recipe for disaster.” Pedestrians and vehicles have shared this road since the original trail was paved in 1962. Although there have been tragic vehicular accidents (the last fatality was 18 years ago), none involved pedestrians.

In fact, pedestrians may even be making the road safer. Many traffic experts believe that where traffic moves slowly, the presence of pedestrians fosters more attentive driving, resulting in fewer and less severe accidents.

Drivers’ nervousness around pedestrians actually promotes the vigilance that makes us all safer, which may explain why a steep and narrow road like this one, graced with plenty of pedestrians, has given rise to only a few, relatively minor accidents in recent years, even though traffic may have increased.

If most pedestrians are excluded, the few remaining may actually be less safe, because drivers will not be expecting them and will drive accordingly.

Recent efforts to improve safety may also be working, but their effectiveness has not been assessed. Last year, with safety as its aim, the Hawaii Legislature passed a law allowing only low-range, four-wheel-drive vehicles on the road. Rangers at the overlook now explain safety procedures.

These and other factors (such as improvements in brake technology) may help explain why the long-expected disaster has not occurred.

A rigorous analysis by traffic experts should be done to assess the present situation and recommend road safety improvements aimed at mitigating the risk. Their analysis must be based on evidence, including the physical condition of the road, measurements of traffic volume and speed, usage data, surveys of different user types, accident history, etc.

The state statute (Sec. 115-7) on public access says that the “development and maintenance of the rights-of-way … shall be the responsibility of the county.” The county’s clear duty is to keep the road open for pedestrian access to public lands and to maintain the road so that it is fit for this purpose.

Interested members of the public can offer written and oral testimony. Instructions are on the Hawaii County Council website and at Keep Waipio Open. If the bill passes first reading today, it will go through a second reading at the next full council hearing so there is ample opportunity to voice concern.

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About the Author

Ed Johnston

Ed Johnston is a retired horticulturist who lives in Pepeekeo. In the 1990s, he was active in the five-year effort to open the shoreline access to Onomea Bay, now part of the statewide Na Ala Hele trail system.

Latest Comments (0)

Excellent and well written opinion, Ed.  Identify the specific problems first, if there even are any.  Then address them with practical solutions.  Banning foot traffic will only open it to opportunists driving people down for a fee, much like is done at South Point to the Green San Beach.  

HiloDon · 2 years ago

In all this talk about banning pedestrians on Waipio Valley Road, I notice there has been no talk about what to do with bicyclists. Ed Johnston brings up a good point about how driver awareness of pedestrians may actually make traffic on the road safer as they will slow down & be more cautious. If pedestrians are taken out of the equation, the natural inclination will be for motorists to drive faster, increasing the chances for collisions with other vehicles, but also, crashing into bicyclists. And whenever that happens, we know what the end result will be: the bicyclist will come out the loser every time.I've seen the comment calling for the road to be gated off, with only Waipio locals & workers getting their own keys. While this idea may have noble intentions, it's an invitation for some of these folks to abuse this privilege by selling this access to certain people & groups. But above all, it just runs counter to the idea that no one (including private landowners living nearby) has the legal right to restrict public access to the shoreline. It's not right when it happens at Kailua Beach on Oahu. It's certainly no different in this case.

KalihiValleyHermit · 2 years ago

My first experience in Waipio Valley was in 2000 with a wagon ride. The tour guide picked us up at an art shop and drove us down. We then took the wagon ride and learned so much about the valley from our guide who lived down there along with his family. We fell in love with the valley and ended up hiking down there 4 more times over the years, always being respectful of the land.I get nervous when I see people driving their rental cars down there. I definitely think there should be some sort of limit, but not for pedestrians. Perhaps a locked gate at the top? Guarded during the day and a fee charged (the money can be used to pay the gate attendant as well as to improve the road)? Waipio Valley locals and workers can have a key to come and go as they please.Just a suggestion.

AlohaGal72 · 2 years ago

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