It’s back to the drawing board for a bill prohibiting pedestrian access to Waipio Valley, after County Council members Wednesday raised constitutionality issues and the effect closing hiking there would have on other valleys, such as Pololu Valley in North Kohala.
Bill 217 would have restricted foot traffic on the steep stretch of the road from the Waipio Valley lookout into the popular valley, where Native Hawaiian farmers grow poi and other produce. The road, navigable only by four-wheel drive vehicles and pedestrians, had been seeing ever-increasing traffic as its popularity with tourists grew, prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was postponed to the call of the chair by a unanimous vote.
Owners, lessees and residents of the valley were exempt from the ban, as well as emergency uses and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners exercising their traditional and customary rights.
Hamakua Councilwoman Heather Kimball, who inherited the bill from former Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, praised Poindexter’s efforts in bringing the issue to a public forum after years of community concerns. But she said the bill raises other concerns that will take more time to work out.
“There are valid concerns that have been raised,” Kimball said, including “constitutionality questions about whether we’re treating people equally under the law.”
Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung was more direct.
“I actually think that this proposal is illegal,” Chung, an attorney, said. “It goes against the constitution of the state of Hawaii.”
As traffic has decreased due to less tourism during the pandemic, there’s time to make the bill more workable, Kimball said. She noted a report expected to come out in mid-January could help bill drafters better understand the problems.
“We can use this pause and do this right and deliberate this fully,” Kimball said. “This could be a model for other sacred places on our island and across the state.”
North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba said the bill was drafted with the best of intentions, but he can’t support it until problems are worked out.
“It bothers me to go to places and have to prove that you are a Hawaiian practicing your rights,” Inaba, a Native Hawaiian, said. “People born and raised in Honokaa who aren’t Hawaiian and have been doing this their whole life, and this bill restricts them.”
Kohala Councilman Tim Richards worried that closing Waipio Valley to hikers could send even more people to Pololu Valley, the most western of the line of seven valleys between impressive sea cliffs that terminate to the east with Waipio Valley.
Richards noted that the state plans to improve parking, restroom and the trailhead at Pololu Valley, which has been overwhelmed with visitors, including more than 40 cars parking along the roadside just last month.
“My community is very concerned about that unintended consequence,” Richards said. “We need a big plan for Waipio, yes, but we need a big plan for the access to all those valleys.”
(This article has been corrected to indicate Councilman Holeka Inaba represents North Kona.)