Friday, May 20, 2022 |
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Papaikou Mill Beach, as seen in 2017. (Hawaii Tribune-Herald/File photo)
Mayor Mitch Roth has decided to abandon efforts to acquire a trail to Papaikou Mill Beach, county officials said Tuesday.
In 2017, Hawaii County filed an eminent domain lawsuit against James Waugh and Charlene Prickett, a Canadian couple whose property in Papaikou contains a switchback path that is the only access to Papaikou Mill Beach, one of the only beaches on the Hamakua Coast.
Eminent domain, also called condemnation, is the right of a government to acquire private property, with due compensation, for public use.
That lawsuit failed in 2020 after a Hilo Circuit judge found that it did not include an adequate description of the area, and a motion to appeal the matter was dismissed shortly thereafter.
At a Tuesday meeting of the County Council’s Finance Committee, Managing Director Lee Lord said that there has been no further action by the county regarding the trail because of a decision by Roth to drop the issue.
Reading a statement by Roth, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, Lord said the previous Corporation Counsel had advised the previous county administration against pursuing the matter for liability reasons.
“The county tried the case and lost, and that cost a lot of hard-earned taxpayers’ money to pay the landowners’ legal fees,” Lord said, adding that trying and losing again would waste even more money.
“Even if the county won, the county would gain very little,” Lord said. “The owners open the trail to the public for every day of the year except one, and maintain the trail at their own cost.”
Waugh and Prickett control access to the beach with a gate that is open about 12 hours a day and locked at 6:30 p.m. According to a 2020 memorandum, Waugh spent $1.98 million cutting the trail to the beach.
However, many community members claim they have had access to the beach for generations and, as Native Hawaiians, have special rights and privileges regarding access to the ocean. Significant public pushback against the private ownership of the trail is what led to the 2017 suit in the first place.
Council members on Tuesday were unhappy with the county’s decision to drop the matter.
“It it’s in the (state) constitution, we don’t need eminent domain,” said Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, referring to the public access rights to the ocean enshrined in the Hawaii constitution. “We shouldn’t have to pay for this at all!”
Councilwoman Maile David, who represents Ka‘u, Volcano and portions of Kona, said she finds it “very disturbing” that the county has evidently decided to abandon an issue regarding generational access to the sea, particularly after its previous efforts were stymied only by an easily correctable technicality.
North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba said it seems “inconsiderate” for the county to conclude that it would gain little from the property considering how little access people in the area have to the ocean.
Ninole resident Noelie Rodriguez, testifying before the meeting, said that, especially now that access to Kolekole and Hakalau beach parks is limited due to contaminated soil, there are few opportunities for residents to easily access the ocean nearby.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Rodriguez said, urging the county to renew its efforts to obtain the property.
Neither Waugh nor Prickett testified at the meeting.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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