Waipio road suit settled



A family walks up Waipi‘o Valley Road in this file photo. A tentative settlement has been reached in a lawsuit regarding road access. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

A spokeswoman for a group that’s reached a tentative settlement in its lawsuit the Hawaii County, the mayor and former public works director over the closure of Waipio Valley Road to all but a handful of people called the mediated agreement “a temporary solution.”

“We’re really looking forward to long-term management with the County Council and the community that is a more permanent solution,” said Ariel Tergeoglou of Malama I Ke Kai ‘O Waipio, also known as MaKa. “But, for now, we get local families back in the water, and that felt important for the … well-being of our community.”


MaKa’s attorney, Steve Strauss — who’s also a plaintiff — said Wednesday the mediated agreement had been reached. The settlement was confirmed Thursday by Cyrus Johnasen, spokesman for Mayor Mitch Roth, although Johnasen didn’t know when restrictions to road access might be eased.

The civil complaint was filed April 22 in Hilo Circuit Court by attorneys Strauss and Christopher Bridges, the latter representing Strauss as a plaintiff. Strauss represents the organization, Tergeoglou, plus David Anderson, Sarah Anderson, Winter Anderson, Heather Nahaku Kalei, Dean Edwards, Sally Lundburg, Keith Tallett, Roland Shackelford, Jerry Bess, Joel Gollaher and Steven Roberson.

“We never wanted this solved in the courts,” Tergeoglou said. “We certainly worked really hard the first several months to solve this in an organic way. So, we’re pleased to not have to go further.”

The subject of the lawsuit was the issuance by Roth on Feb. 25 of an emergency declaration closing Waipio Valley Road to all but residents, landowners and farmers in the valley, stating that “upon scientific information and expertise available, Waipio Valley Road is in imminent threat of slope and roadway failure threatening the health, safety, and welfare of the people.”

The declaration prohibited visitors, effectively shutting down tourism, voluntary stewardship programs, surfing, camping and transient vacation rentals in the valley.

Strauss said the county will be issuing an amended emergency proclamation and emergency rule for the road into the valley near Honokaa “that would restore four-wheel-drive vehicle access for Hawaii Island residents and for Native Hawaiians for shoreline access, and also for licensed commercial tour operators.”

Strauss said the county won’t initially allow access to pedestrians and visitors from off-island, although pedestrians can petition the county for an individual exemption.

Asked if excluding nonresidents from road access would pass constitutional muster, Strauss called the plan as mediated “an interim solution.”

“Part of what the county has committed to doing is a traffic management and safety study for Waipio Valley Road that the Department of Public Works plans to do in-house,” he said.

MaKa’s suit claimed Roth relied on “a flawed preliminary geotechnical engineering evaluation prepared by the engineering firm Hart Crowser” of Seattle in making his decision to shut down the steep, narrow, winding access road — which is basically accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle, on foot or by horseback.

That study, the lawsuit claimed, concluded that pedestrians on the road have a greater than 1 in 18,000 chance of dying in a rock fall per trip, while vehicle occupants have a risk of 1 in 170,000 chance of dying from a rock fall per trip.

According to the suit, the methodology used in Hart Crowser’s study was misapplied.

The plaintiffs referred to a study by civil engineer Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawaii at Manoa professor, which cited a risk of 1 in 5 million chance of a pedestrian dying in a rockfall on the road, and a risk of 1 in 17 million for a vehicle occupant.

Tergeoglou said she became a plaintiff in the suit because Waipio is “where I learned to surf as a child.”

“And it’s where I now take my 9-year-old son, and am teaching him water safety and how to surf,” she added. “I was concerned that this would take a long time before we were allowed back in. And at that point, potentially, my son would be an adult and we would lose all that precious time.

“For the last six months, not going there has been difficult. It’ll be nice to return and have a renewed sense of place and responsibility towards it. And hopefully, we can all do better in management in the future.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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