A settlement appears to have been reached in a lawsuit over Hawaii County’s decision to close access to the popular Waipio Valley Road on the Big Island.

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Community group Malama I ke Kai o Waipio says mediation between plaintiffs and the county has produced a settlement that will allow four-wheel drive access to Waipio Valley for Big Island residents and Native Hawaiians regardless of residency.

The settlement was reached after eight hours of skilled mediation in August with retired Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza, the group said in a release this week on its website.

Waipio Valley road closed.
Waipio Valley Road was closed under an emergency declaration by Mayor Mitch Roth over safety concerns. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Mayor Mitch Roth abruptly closed access to Waipio Valley on Feb. 25, citing safety concerns with the narrow, winding road that leads to an amphitheater valley on the island’s north shore.

The decision provoked strong, negative reaction from many quarters, including Hawaiian cultural practitioners, surfers, fishermen and local residents.

The emergency closure allowed some road access to remain. Valley residents and farmers, property owners and leaseholders engaged in agriculture or animal husbandry, and government employees, contractors and others responding to an emergency were allowed to continue traveling on the road during the closure.

Malama I ke Kai o Waipio organized as a community group to fight the closure. It filed a lawsuit on April 22 on behalf of more than a dozen plaintiffs, arguing that Roth’s action was arbitrary and capricious, based on a flawed geotechnical report that grossly exaggerated the risks of traveling on the road.

Waipio Valley road closed with a 'No Pedestrians' sign.
Waipio Valley Road was closed in part over concerns about slope failure. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The suit said that Roth’s emergency decision relied on faulty information and his claim that the road was in imminent threat of slope failure was bogus.

The county asked for the case to be dismissed, a motion that was denied. Mediation ensued and a settlement came together after two rounds of talks by Zoom, according to the group. Participating in the mediation were plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ attorneys Chris Bridges and Steve Strauss, Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance, Deputy Corporation Counsel Steve Idemoto, and Public Works Director Steve Pause, according to Strauss.

Roth’s spokesperson said details of the settlement are still being finalized.

“Until we have ink on paper, I have nothing to report,” spokesman Cyrus Johnasen said Wednesday morning.

According to Malama I ke Kai o Waipio, also called MaKa, the agreement includes: “restored 4WD vehicular access to Hawaii island residents and Native Hawaiians. The County also included the resumption of licensed and insured tour operations.”

It’s unclear who would enforce the residency and Native Hawaiian ancestry requirements to access the county-owned road and whether those restrictions would withstand legal scrutiny.

“These are all things we’re working through. Figuring out enforcement and access credentials” are part of what’s holding up an official announcement of the settlement, Johnasen said Thursday.

“We’re not in the business of publishing half baked emergency orders or executive rules. As of now, a tentative settlement is in the works, but specifics have yet to be fully agreed upon by both parties,” he added.

According to Malama I ke Kai o Waipio, Pause will prioritize a traffic management study to address pedestrian access and road safety. Those wishing to access the valley on foot could apply to the county for an exemption to the closure, the group’s press release says.

Known as Valley of the Kings, Waipio Valley is regarded as a culturally significant and sacred place.

But its breathtaking beauty and cultural splendor have also made Waipio Valley a tourism hot spot that’s now associated with overcrowding, congestion, safety hazards and other negative experiences.

“We believe that the management of access into Waipio is necessary, especially with increased tourism and an expanding population on Hawaii island. However, the Mayor’s emergency proclamation did not directly address these issues, and severely impacted the practices and traditions of both Native Hawaiians and our local community,” Roland Shackelford, president of Malama I ke Kai o Waipio, said in the group’s press release.

Still, Shackelford said he and his organization are “extremely happy” with the county’s willingness to mediate and take community input. He thanked officials for collaborating on finding solutions.

“Numerous citizens from a variety of backgrounds contributed a lot of time and effort to the interim resolution, but much more effort will be necessary to support ocean access for everyone in the long term,” Strauss said by email.

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