Advocates of a plan to restrict access into one of Hawaii’s most sacred valleys haven’t given up hope that a solution limiting congestion can still be found.

Despite the Hawaii County Council’s recent decision to defer Bill 217 — a proposal to ban foot traffic along the county road from Waipio Valley Lookout into the valley floor — residents and landowners are optimistic that stakeholders will reach a compromise this year to limit pedestrians on the narrow, crumbling one-lane road.

The deferral was just a small setback, they say.

“It’s taken us longer than we’d like, but this has gone on for over 30 years,” said Darde Gamayo, who owns a taro farm with her husband, Darren, in the valley. “We’ve been asking, and it’s only getting worse and worse and worse … something’s got to give.”

Gamayo is a member of a working group tasked with finding a long-term solution to a problem residents know well: Too many people are visiting a mostly private, culturally sacred spot ill-equipped to handle them.

“It’s really serious,” Gamayo said, calling the status quo a danger.

Darde Gamayo, a taro farmer in Waipio Valley shown here with her granddaughter, is leading an awareness campaign to highlight the need to limit the number of visitors to the valley. Tom Hasslinger/Civil Beat/2021

But on Dec. 23, the Hawaii County Council deferred the proposal to restrict pedestrian access into the valley via the steep road.

Council members said they wanted to work on the issue more to be certain the ideas they were considering were legal.

Opponents are adamant that closing a county-owned road to the public, cutting off people from public beach space and hiking trails, is illegal.

The County Council received ample testimony against effectively barring people from the mile-long beach, the state’s Muliwai trail, its campground, and the mauka-makai King’s Trail.

Among the dissenters was Aaron Chung, the Hawaii County Council chairman from Hilo.

“It goes against the constitution of the state of Hawaii,” said Chung, an attorney.

But advocates are still plugging away. They feel momentum is on their side, and if it takes another year, they’re prepared.

“It’s not dead,” Gayamo said of the bill. “It’s paused.”

But the council also deferred the issue to avoid unintended consequences, such as encouraging more cars into the valley or pushing hikers to nearby Pololu Valley, which already experiences its own crowding issue.

The bill would have exempted owners, lessees and residents of the valley from the ban, as well as emergency uses and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

While deferral of a bill at the council level often signals a proposal’s death, stakeholders say the issue is too important to go away.

“Discussions on Bill 217 brought needed attention to the specialness of Waipio Valley and demonstrate the joint commitment of government and community to public safety,” said Kekoa Kaluhiwa, Kamehameha Schools’ director of land operations. Kamehameha Schools is one of the major landowners in the valley.

“With open and continued dialogue, we remain optimistic that solutions can be achieved,” Kaluhiwa said.

Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball, whose district includes the culturally significant valley, said she’s confident a solution can be worked out before her first term is up.

In fact, the freshman councilor said finding a workable compromise is perhaps the biggest goal of her first two years. Kimball inherited the issue from former councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who termed out of office at the end of 2020.

The one-lane Waipio Valley Road offers only a few spots where vehicles can inch by each other. Tom Hasslinger/Civil Beat/2021

“The community all recognizes, even the ones that were opposed to the legislation, that we can all clearly see that something needs to be done,” Kimball said.

But, Kimball added, the concerns the bill raised will take time to work out.

“This is not something that’s going to happen overnight,” she said.

That is where Gamayo comes in.

The Waipio Valley resident is a member of the working group of roughly 15 stakeholders meeting regularly to try and find a solution they can bring back to the council. Also on the working group are Kimball and Waipio landowners Bishop Museum and Kamehameha Schools.

Gamayo believes raising awareness on the issue is paramount to reaching consensus.

She recently led a representative of a rental car company and a journalist around the valley to show them firsthand the dangers of the 4-wheel-drive-only road and the residential nature of the neighborhood.

“It’s frustrating as a farmer and as a resident that we have to deal with this. We won’t even come down on weekends because it’s too crazy,” she said. “They trespass. They’re in our backyards, they’re in our farms. What about the residents who live here?”

The public spaces in the Valley of Kings are limited to the tide line of the beach, excluding much of the beach itself, and the hiking trails, she added. Most people don’t realize that, although signs mark the roads as private beyond the two miles or so of the county-owned road.

The road is so narrow, two cars can inch by each other at only a few designated pullout spots. Visibility is limited, too, so if a line of cars must yield, the whole line must back up to the nearest turnout spot. Driving the road capably is an acquired skill. And when hikers are added to the roadway – sometimes up to 200 a day — it leaves little room for error.

“It is stressful,” Gamayo said. “You get a mix of people who know what they’re doing, and who don’t know what they’re doing.”

The latest accident on the road occurred on Jan. 5.

Hawaii Police said a 2000 Toyota 4Runner was traveling downhill on Waipio Access Road, when it experienced a brake failure and collided with a 2004 Ford Econoline, a tour van, traveling uphill. No injuries were reported.

Over the years, some vehicles have rolled off the treacherous Waipio Valley Road or been involved in other accidents. Tom Hasslinger/Civil Beat/2021

But it highlights why awareness is so important, Gamayo said. People need to understand this isn’t your normal county road.

As for the legality of restricting road usage, the Hawaii County Office of the Corporation Counsel said it didn’t see any legal prohibitions.

Attorney Renee N.C. Schoen said the office is waiting to see what any new version contains but that the original idea didn’t offer any “legal infirmity.”

“There is a rational basis to potentially limit the number of visitors,” she said.

In the meantime, all parties await the results of a geo-technical study by the Department of Public Works that analyzed the road’s structural integrity. The department said it received the preliminary draft report Jan. 14 and is currently reviewing its findings, but could not comment further.

Raymond Kong, vice president and general counsel for Bishop Museum – the largest landowner in the valley with about 80% of the land — agreed with other stakeholders that a compromise seems imminent.

The fact that so many people have been working together for so many months is a testament to that. Kong, a working group member, said the best solution likely will involve a permitting process to control the number of visitors, by foot or car, at a given time.

“That’s the ideal situation,” he said.

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