The violation notice was suspended after Civil Beat asked DPP for comment. DPP denies retaliation.

A wheelchair user who called on the city to fix a sidewalk outside his house was surprised when the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting instead issued him a notice of violation for his driveway. 

Ryan Smith, 56, said he has been quadriplegic for about 40 years. He submitted a request in 2020 for the city to fix the sidewalk because an adjacent tree’s roots appear to be growing underneath it, causing the sidewalk to warp in ways too steep and difficult for him to maneuver in his wheelchair.

“It’s not a want kind of thing, it’s a need,” he said.

The tree is on city property, and so the city paved the cracks after the initial request. But the tree continued to grow and cracks returned. Smith said he’d prefer that the tree be removed entirely so he doesn’t have to worry about the problem coming up every few years.

Ryan Smith sits outside his home next to the tree whose roots continue to force the sidewalk upward and impede his ability to maneuver his wheelchair
Ryan Smith feels the city retaliated against him for reporting a disability access issue on the sidewalk outside of his house. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

He reached out to the Hawaii Disability Rights Center in December 2022 and said he requested an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city came to investigate the area, and Smith said he was waiting for the work order to start when he received a notice of violation in May.

Smith’s house sits on the corner of two streets, and the violation notice said one side has an “abandoned driveway.”

Abandoned driveways are legally defined as those that are no longer used to enter and exit the property. To resolve the issue, Smith would have to build a full curb to replace the ramp where the driveway meets the street.

“If I don’t do it, they said they’ll do it and bill me,” he said.

The city claimed the violation notice was the result of an anonymous complaint. Smith is skeptical about that, saying he has never heard anybody complain about his driveway.

He suspects that the violation notice might be a form of retaliation after continually requesting for the tree to be removed.

“It’s been this way for 60 years,” he said of the driveway. “I feel like I’m being bullied and discriminated against.”

Diane Haar, founder of Hawaii Disability Legal Services, said Smith’s situation sounds “retaliatory.”

“Under the ADA, you have to make reasonable accommodations when requested, if it’s not an undue burden,” she said.

Street views from Google Maps confirm that the driveway has held different cars in that spot since at least 2009. Smith said that he has lived in his family house in Kaimuki his whole life. 

When Civil Beat reached out to DPP in July, spokesperson Curtis Lum responded saying that Director Dawn Takeuchi Apuna was personally reviewing the situation. 

In an emailed statement, Takeuchi Apuna said the department recently decided to suspend the notice of violation and is investigating the situation.

“At first glance, this appears to be the result of a misunderstanding among DPP inspectors,” she wrote.  

“One thing I can say is that the issuance of the NOV was not done in retaliation for any actions done by Mr. Smith and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused him. We will have more to say once my investigation is concluded.”

For now, the tree remains.

Smith is not alone in struggling with disability access in Honolulu, according to Haar.

“I feel like we’re really behind the times here,” she said. “We really need to get up to speed.”

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