News

Still No Answers to Crowded Waipi‘o Valley Road Issue

By Tom Hasslinger
December 14, 2021, 5:00 PM HST
* Updated December 14, 3:33 PM
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Darde Gamayo poses in her Waipi‘o Valley farm in January.
Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

A year after The Hawai‘i County Council deferred a bill that would have limited pedestrian traffic on the access road into one of Hawai‘i’s most sacred valleys, some advocates are frustrated with what they see as stalled progress toward limiting congestion on the overcrowded road.

The issue has been discussed long enough, it should be time to start implementing safety measures, residents of the valley say.

“There’s a little frustration,” said Darde Gamayo, who owns a taro farm with her husband, Darren, in Waipi‘o Valley. 

Gamayo thought there would be a solution in place by now. She is a member of a working group tasked with finding a long-term solution to a problem Waipi‘o residents know well: Too many people are visiting a mostly private, culturally sacred spot ill-equipped to handle them.

The issue at hand is the steep road into the valley. Specifically, the narrow, crumbling, one-lane path is dangerous for vehicles, especially those being driven by people unaccustomed to the conditions. Adding to the precarious recipe are hikers, up to 200 a day, who traverse the same road, leaving little margin of error for cars and people alike.

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The combination is a disaster waiting to happen, Gamayo said. And it’s only getting worse now that Hawai‘i has opened back up following its shutdown during the pandemic.

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“The numbers are crazy,” Gamayo said, adding, if the issue isn’t addressed, “It’s going to be ugly.”

In December 2020, the Hawai‘i County Council deferred Bill 217 — a proposal to ban foot traffic along the county road from Waipi‘o Valley Lookout into the valley floor — in favor of researching the issue more with interested parties before implementing any rule changes.

Council members said they wanted to work on the issue more to be certain the ideas they were considering were legal.

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Opponents are adamant that closing a county-owned road to the public, cutting off people from public beach space and hiking trails, is illegal.

Among the dissenters was Aaron Chung, an attorney and the Hawai‘i County Council chairman from Hilo.

“It goes against the constitution of the state of Hawai‘i,” he said last year.

The County Council received volumes of testimony last year against effectively barring people from the mile-long beach, the state’s Muliwai trail, its campground, and the mauka-makai King’s Trail. The council also deferred the issue to avoid unintended consequences, such as encouraging more cars into the valley or pushing hikers to nearby Pololū Valley, which already experiences its own crowding issue.

But one year after the decision to push pause – and one year after regular task force meetings were held where people vetted ideas – stakeholders are still in the information gathering stage.

Still, progress has been made, Kimball said.

“I think we’re doing it right in not rushing anything,” said Kimball, whose Hāmākua District includes the culturally significant valley, “Unfortunately, nothing in government ever moves as quickly as you like.”

Around $100,000 has been secured from the Hawai‘i Island Visitors Bureau to fund a facilitator to guide the steering committee and the public through meetings aimed at finding solutions, as well as sift through all the information gathered thus far. The meetings will begin meeting in-person and online soon, over the next three or so months.

“It’s actually intended to get us to actionable items,” Kimball said. “We have a lot of information.”

Some of the possibilities still include limiting pedestrian access on the road, or implementing a permit requirement for vehicles. Permitting requirements have been successfully implemented on Kaua‘i, for example.

What key information isn’t know yet, at least not publicly, is the state of the road itself.

The Department of Public Works contracted for a geo-technical study to analyze the structure of the road over a year ago. The results were expected to be shared back in January, but still haven’t been. DPW didn’t respond to an email from Big Island Now regarding the study by Tuesday. Back in January, the department said it couldn’t comment on it.

“I certainly think it would be helpful for us to have,” Kimball said.

In the meantime, her office has reached out to Congressional representatives to see if financial support from Washington, D.C. could be obtained.

The fact that the road study results haven’t been made public a year later doesn’t make sense to Gamayo. Neither does including too many stakeholders for a problem that is hyper-local for Waipi‘o residents. Unlike Pololu Valley, Waipi‘o Valley is home to a residential neighborhood comprised of mostly farmers and private roads, whereas Pololu is uninhabited. Comparing the two isn’t fair, she said.

She said she wants to move forward and implement changes. While the issue has gained steam in the last year, the problem of how to deal with overcrowding on the road has been discussed for decades, she said.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” Gamayo said. But “why are we going in circles again?”

“I’m trying to be as optimistic as possible.”

Up to 200 pedestrians a day traverse into Waipio Valley. PC: Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now
Tom Hasslinger
Tom Hasslinger is a journalist who lives in Kailua-Kona. Prior to joining Big Island Now, he worked as the managing editor for West Hawaii Today and deputy editor for The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai. He's worked for over 15 years as a reporter for the Oahu-based Civil Beat news outlet, as well as in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and Douglas Wyoming.
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