A decision by the Big Island mayor to abruptly close road access to Waipio Valley for most people is causing major heartburn for various sectors of the public.

One lawsuit was filed in late March. Another case is in the works. And a petition demanding that Mayor Mitch Roth lift or amend his Feb. 25 emergency road closure has garnered more than 800 signatures.

Roth based the closure on what he said was an “imminent threat” to public safety from rockfall and unstable slopes, a characterization critics say is grossly overstated and flawed, but the county stands by it.

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“These are citizens, and they have a right to say what they want to say,” said Sherise Kanae-Kane, information and education specialist with the Department of Public Works. “But these people are not engineers.”

The road closure, which took many by surprise, has provoked emotional divisions among groups of people who use the valley, including Hawaiian cultural practitioners, surfers, fishermen and tourism operators.

Waipio Valley, located on the northeast coast, is one of the Big Island’s biggest tourist draws and it’s revered as a place of cultural and historical importance. Known as the Valley of the Kings, Waipio was once the home of Hawaiian rulers. Ancient burial caves and temples, known as heiau, are located in the valley.

The road is extremely narrow and steep, with hairpin turns, precipitous drops and few places to pull over. Many have recognized for a long time that traveling the road can be dangerous if drivers are inexperienced or unfamiliar with the terrain.

The temporary closure of Waipio Valley Road has riled residents on the Big Island. Flickr: Wasif Malik

To enforce the emergency closure, the county has posted a couple of security guards at Waipio Lookout where the road begins. The pair alternate shifts, allowing valley residents and farmers, property owners and leaseholders engaged in animal husbandry or agriculture, and government employees and contractors to access the road. Everyone else is barred from walking, driving, riding a horse, bicycle or any other mode of transportation into the valley.

“It’s been a little random who gets to go down,” said Joe Gaglione, a surfer from Waimea. “There is a sense of injustice.”

Gaglione, 40, has visited the valley regularly since he was a child and learned to surf at age 12. The road closure, barring him from Waipio, stings, especially since he’s heard reports of tourists being allowed in or others staying at vacation homes on the valley floor. Others are sneaking in when the guards are not on duty, Gaglione said. Others are reportedly getting in by saying they are doing handyman work on homes in the valley.

“I have also witnessed rule-bending and favoritism at the top. So, it’s like an elitist club who gets to go down,” Valerie Goo said in a Facebook post critical of the road closure.

Gaglione is among ocean users featured on a new website aimed at gathering public support to pressure Roth to open the road, at least partially while repairs and solutions are underway. The website is the public face of Malama I Ke Kai O Waipio, a community group that formed since the closure. Its mission is to ensure ocean access to residents to “perpetuate traditional forms of wave riding, fishing, gathering and other shoreline activities that sustain a thriving Waipio Valley.”

“The valley needs a rest. But as ocean users, we want a seat at the table.” — Sally Lundburg, Malama I Ke Kai O Waipio

Many of those advocating for reopening the road say they recognize there have been longstanding conflicts in Waipio Valley fueled by growing numbers of visitors who travel the road in four-wheel-drive rental vehicles. The vehicles have presented safety concerns because those descending the road must yield to those coming up by pulling over at designated spots and waiting one at a time. Locals who regularly drive the road know how to navigate it while visitors often don’t.

For some tourists, it may be their first time driving an off-road vehicle. When they must stop to let another car go by, they sometimes panic if they have to yield or put the vehicle in reverse, said Gary Matsuo of Waipio Valley Shuttle, whose commercial tour business has been shut down due to the emergency closure.

“I’ve had to jump in their car and help people out,” Matsuo said. “But if I’m driving a tour van, there’s no way I can leave the van unattended.”

Matsuo, who wants the road reopened, said he’s often seen small children walking down the road without their parents paying attention.

“It’s scary,” he said.

Waipio Valley is named as a hot spot in Hawaii island’s destination management plan, a place where relief from the pressures of tourism is warranted.

Some critics of the road closure say they want to seek solutions that will benefit Hawaii island residents.

“I know the valley has been under enormous pressure,” said Sally Lundburg, board secretary for Malama I Ke Kai O Waipio. “The valley needs a rest. But as ocean users, we want a seat at the table.”

Lundburg teaches art at Hawaii Preparatory Academy. She’s also a surfer, filmmaker and farmer of fruit and taro on her family’s homestead in Paauilo Mauka on the Hamakua Coast. One of Lundburg’s films, featured on the group’s website, spotlights U‘ilani Macabio, a mother, special ed teacher at Honokaa public schools, hula dancer and surfer.

Swimming in the Deep (U`ilani) from Sally Lundburg on Vimeo.

The films shows Macabio riding the waves off Waipio Valley. In the film’s narration, she talks about how surfing is something she does to relieve stress “and feel the ocean within.”

“It feels good. It feels liberating. It feels like I’ve been holding my breath for so long and all of a sudden, I get to release it. That’s what surfing is like for me today. When I was younger, I could do it all the time,” says Macabio.

Lundburg says many people, including island youth, are suffering emotional stress and mental health effects from being cut off from a place they consider sacred and culturally significant.

“Our kids really need this,” said Lundburg.

Whether the county will take those concerns to heart remains to be seen. Roth told Civil Beat that he’s had several meetings with community members to hear what they have to say.

“We’re trying to listen to their input,” he said.

At this point, the road is expected to be closed for three years as repairs are made to stabilize the rocks and soil along the road which a geotechnical report, commissioned by the county, identified as posing hazards. The report did not say the road should be closed.

“We’re trying to see if the work can be done in phases that allow us to open” it, said Roth.

Hilo attorney Steve Strauss is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of ocean users who feel the mayor blundered in his handling of the road closure. Some of the claims will be for arbitrary and capricious decision-making, unlawful procedure, violating equal protection and the public trust, and other alleged infractions of the law.

One of the experts Strauss expects to hear from is a retired road inspector who oversaw road maintenance on the Big Island for 35 years, including the Waipio Valley road. The retired inspector will declare that he never saw or heard of anyone being injured or killed by rocks or slides on the Waipio road in more than three decades on the job, Strauss said.

A separate lawsuit was filed in late March by attorney Ron Kim on behalf of several tourism operators who have lost business since the road closure took effect. The businesses include horseback and shuttle tours that used to take visitors into the valley. Kim said Monday that he withdrew the lawsuit after some of the clients got cold feet. He declined to elaborate.

Richard Mastronardo, owner of Waipio Valley Artworks, said some clients have decided to go with a different attorney.

Roth said he hadn’t seen any lawsuit and couldn’t discuss any pending litigation anyway.

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