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Development Near Popular Kaloko Mauka Hiking Trail Leads to Spats, Vandalism, and Threatening Signs

By Tom Hasslinger
January 7, 2022, 6:30 AM HST
* Updated January 8, 12:17 PM
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David Barnett points out private land on which he works. Photos by Tom Hasslinger, Big Island Now

Confusion over property boundaries in Kaloko Mauka pitted a handful of hikers and neighbors against a pair of landowners who wanted to begin building homes on their private parcels.

The problem, in this case, was that the private property sits directly next to the public hiking trail at the end of Makahi Street in the rural, forested area.  And the private parcels have sat vacant and untouched for more than 20 years, so long that they’ve blended in nicely — almost too nicely — to the beginning of the Makāula ‘O ‘Oma Trail in the Honua‘ula Forest Reserve, a lush, peaceful hiking destination 10 miles outside of Kailua-Kona. 

The confusion has led to heated confrontations, vandalized equipment, online back-and-forths, and  hung signs threatening to shoot hikers.

“I found myself looking behind my back, thinking, ‘Am I going to get shot?” said Lia Cary, an avid hiker of Kaloko Mauka, who came across the sign one day late in the fall warning hikers what they could expect should they trespass onto private land. “That sign felt, literally, that someone spit in my eye.”

Cary has been hiking the Makāula ‘O ‘Oma Trail for the last seven years. The cloud forest, she said, offers a unique opportunity to connect with nature at its finest. The 200- to 700-foot elevation gain through the vast ecosystems and ʻōhiʻa and hāpuʻu tree fern forest offers a feeling of escape, all while still being close to town and the ocean.

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“It’s an amazing place,” Cary said. “Kaloko has a very strong presence.”

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But when she came across the sign while hiking one day back in October, she felt unnerved. Even unsafe. She had noticed fences and construction equipment up near Makahi Street where the trailhead was, but the threatening sign was something completely different.

“It was scary, but more so, it was disturbing – a perfect example of how colonialism is still alive on the  island,” she said. “To put that up there is really tone-deaf to the history of this place (Hawai‘i).”

“Where’s the aloha?” she asked.

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The land owners are asking the same question. They say they put up the signs with strong wording out of frustration because their messaging wasn’t getting through to some people who were blatantly disrespecting their property rights.

‘They Threw a Fit’

The 22-acre piece of private land is divided into two 11-acre plots. Forrest Shoemaker and his wife, of O‘ahu, own one, and professional surfer Kelly Slater owns the other.

The private property sits directly next to the state land, where the hiking trail and forest reserve begins. The private property has sat untouched and undeveloped for so long, 20-plus years, that people have assumed it was an extension of the heavily traversed public portion. In fact, community trails have worn into the earth from hikers’ feet so deeply it looks as though the trails were purposely developed.

But those worn walking paths were never part of the public hiking trail – they just looked like it.

So when Shoemaker and Slater began clearing trees and brush to make room for driveways and house pads as the prepared to begin construction, some people assumed they were developing state land.

“They threw a fit,” said Lance Owens, the realtor who represented the Shoemakers in the property sale on how some people reacted. “They put locks around his gate so he couldn’t get in his own property. When the tractors came in, they started vandalizing the equipment – water in the gas tanks. Three different times I had to cut off locks for him.”

David Barnett is the caretaker for the Slater piece of land. He’s also done a lot of construction work in the Kaloko Mauka neighborhood, including for Shoemaker and Slater’s current project. He said he was stunned when he saw the reaction the work crews encountered after they moved their equipment in to put in an access road between the two plots of land last spring.

One woman, he said, approached him on the property and screamed in his face, claiming the property owners had no right to develop state land.

“I’m like, ‘Whaaaat?” Barnett said. 

According to Barnett – who goes by the nickname Dozer – that wasn’t it: They had their private property signs on the fence along Makahi Street damaged and torn down. They had cars park and block them from their own driveway. They had locks fastened around their driveway gates. The heavy equipment machine that had water poured into its gas tank, which Owens mentioned, causing $12,000 in damage Barnett said he had to eat.

“Twelve grand, bro,” Barnett said. “That was not done by a tourist.”

County of Hawai‘i Gets Involved

The County of Hawai‘i got involved. The county was called by both sides – concerned people who thought state land was being developed and the private property owners who wanted their boundaries respected – each seeking enforcement against the other.

The county accessed the situation and saw that property owners were within their rights, but it also noticed the amount of parked vehicles near the trailhead and private driveways, which caused a safety concern because the congestion would prohibit access to the trailhead for emergency vehicles. The department erected no-parking signs, which were knocked down by someone. The county went in and put the signs back up.

Fortuitously, in the late summer, around the time the disputes were going on, a fire engine had difficulty getting out of Makahi Street responding to a emergency on the trail because of the parked cars blocking the road. The engine reversed out of the road, as captured in this Sept. 1 video

The property owners frustrations mounted. 

“We were like, ‘Enough is enough,'” Barnett said.

So Barnett said he hung the signs warning hikers if they crossed over the private property line, they would be shot.

“And I have no problem with that,” Barnett said of the language he used. He added, after he was asked, that he never would have followed up on the threat. “They’re just words. Sometimes that’s all you need.” 

Barnett said the signs were indirectly targeted at one squatter-type, who had threated him and claimed the land was sovereign land that belonged to him. That man has since moved off, Barnett said. 

But other people noticed the signs as well, as they drew attention on Facebook.

“Disgusting,” Desirae Marie Brown wrote in reaction to the signs on Sept. 30.

The signs hung for weeks for any hiker to see, like Cary, who said she hadn’t threatened anyone or trespassed or vandalized any equipment. It was an aggressive, selfish act to hang it, she said, because it took away from the serenity the public forest usually provides. And it came off as tone-deaf in a state where land being taken from the people is an especially sensitive topic.

“It put a real bad taste in my mouth,” Cary said. “It’s very scary to think, is this our future? Isn’t Hawaii different than Florida?”

Trespassing a Problem for Decades

David Barnett unlocks a gate to private property on which he works in Kaloko Mauka, adjacent a popular hiking trail, and which now has private property signs without shooting threats. Photos by Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Barnett said he’s been telling people for nearly 25 years not to trespass on the property. He’s had to evict squatters, cleanup after countless parties or trash dumps, report numerous stolen tools and property, help out lost hikers, and otherwise continually inform people that it’s not public land during all those years he’s looked after it.

“I’ve always been nice except for one person,” he said, referring to the woman he said screamed in his face recently. 

An added wrinkle to the confusion, perhaps, is an old, outdated development classification under which the private property development is filed. It is labelled as a “Condominium Property Regime,” or CPR.

It’s just a name designation, Owens explained, and one that was grandfathered in with the property. On county records, the property listings state “condominium/apartment unit information” and “Kaloko-Mauka Subdivision,” but the parcels will be home to residential homes befitting the rest of the neighborhood.

In fact, Owens, a resident of the neighborhood since 2013, pointed out, a contingency of plot development is only 20% of the property can be cleared, and 80% must remain natural.

The Shoemakers, he said, are working with native species experts to remove invasive species on their land and restore native ones.

“That’s what he loved about it. He wants to have 11 acres and have it all natural and just have his house sitting in the middle,” Owens said. “He’s a really good neighbor and it was sad to see the drama that unfolded from people who felt entitled to land that was private property.”

Shoemaker declined to comment for this story, deferring instead to Owens and Barnett’s statements. Around two weeks ago, Shoemaker did send Owens new no-trespassing signs to hang, ones without shooting threats. Owens said Shoemaker’s new signs didn’t have to do with the fact that Big Island Now reached out to the landowner asking about them, but rather the owners got around to sending more neutral ones later on in the process.

New Hiking, Trail Signs on Their Way

To the left is the hiking trail entrance to Makāula ‘O ‘Oma Trail at the end of Makahi Street. To the right is private property.

More clarification is coming.

Jackson Bauer, Nā Ala Hele Trail and Access Program manager for the Division of Forestry and Wildlife for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, is in charge of looking after the Kaloko trail.

Thanks to funding from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, new signage will be coming to the hiking trail early this year, as well as additional directional signage on the trails to help hikers navigate the 4.3 miles of walking paths.

The timing of the new signs in a the statewide program is coincidental with the confusion – or disagreement – in Kaloko, he pointed out.

Bauer’s office didn’t receive complaints about the construction work directly, but he was made aware of some of the trespassing issues, which isn’t an uncommon problem for trails that abut private properties. The issue is especially important on Makāula ‘O ‘Oma because the Makahi Street entrance is the only public entrance into the trail system there.

“I think it will help will some of the complaints,” he said of the new signs, which will include historical and interpretive descriptions informing the public about the land. “Hopefully, that will instill more respectful behavior in the area.”

The division is always looking for volunteers to help clean and maintain trails and as well as inform hikers about the land they’re on. Community-building programs like those go along way to building cohesion between neighbors and visitors, he said.

Those interested can visit here.

In the meantime, the grading work is done. The construction rigs are gone. Plans for building the homes are in the works, and a new sign pointing the way to the trail head is easily visible from the road.

Most all the shooting signs have been taken down, too, replaced by more common public-facing private property signs along the fence and road. But not every single one. There are still a couple of signs warning of shot hikers way in the back of the private property, where it would be difficult – but not impossible – for a lost or uncaring hiker to bushwhack his or her way through.

Which still happens, Barnett pointed out on a recent tour of the property with Big Island Now. It can be alarming should such an encounter occur at odd-hours and the property owner isn’t expecting it.

“Super unnerving,” Barnett said.

Still, things have cooled down considerably. There’s even talk of the property owners helping put in a public parking lot near the trailhead someday. And the Shoemakers, friends of theirs said, are looking forward to putting the issue behind them, moving in and blending in with the neighborhood, which they hope to do by next year.

They’re avid hikers themselves.

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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