News

Roth, County Sued Over Waipi‘o Valley Road Closure

By Tom Hasslinger
April 26, 2022, 1:15 PM HST
* Updated April 26, 1:30 PM
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A community organization filed a lawsuit against the county, Mayor Mitch Roth and Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst, claiming that the emergency Waipi‘o Valley Road closure is unlawful to all but a select few people.

The civil complaint was filed Friday in Hilo District Court by Hilo attorneys Steven Strauss and Christopher Bridges on behalf of Ke Kai ‘O Wapi‘o and several other individuals, the Hawai‘i-Tribune Herald reported April 26.

Roth ordered the road closed on Feb. 25, citing safety concerns documented by engineering studies that the narrow, crumbling, steep one-lane road was too dangerous for vehicles and pedestrians alike. The order left it open only for Waipi‘o Valley residents or commercial operators who had legitimate ag business to attend to in the valley.

Roth based the closure on what he said was an “imminent threat” to public safety from rockfall and unstable slopes, among other concerns.

What to do with the road has been a topic for years. Residents of the valley have been frustrated with overcrowding on the roadway, saying that up to 200 pedestrians on the path each day, combined with tourists’ cars and tour buses, make it seemingly impossible for farmers to commute the already dangerous route.

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The lawsuit claims that the declaration prohibits visitors, tourism, voluntary stewardship programs, camping and transient vacation rentals from taking place in the sacred valley, long known as one of the state’s premier attractions. It goes on to claim that Roth and his team relied on a “flawed preliminary geotechnical engineering evaluation prepared by the engineering firm Hart-Crowser out of Seattle,” according to the Tribune-Herald report.

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The lawsuit claims that a study by civil engineer Panos Prevedouros, a University of Hawai‘i at Manoa professor, states that pedestrians have a 1 in 5 million risk of dying in a rockfall on the road, and a risk of 1 in 17 million for a vehicle occupant, far less severe than the study Roth used that cited a one in 18,000 chance and 1 in 170,000, for the same two categories, respectively, the article stated. 

A petition demanding that Roth lift or amend his emergency closure had gained nearly 1,000 signatures by early April, Civil Beat reported earlier this month.

“These are citizens, and they have a right to say what they want to say,” Sherise Kanae-Kane, information and education specialist with the Department of Public Works, told Civil Beat in the article. “But these people are not engineers.”

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The road closure has produced passionate, polarized reactions among groups of people who use the valley, including residents, Hawaiian cultural practitioners, surfers, fishermen and tourism operators, among others.

The valley is revered as a place of cultural and historical significance. Known as the Valley of the Kings, Waip‘io was once the home of Hawaiian rulers. Ancient burial caves and temples dot the lush, wild landscape.

Cyrus Johnasen, spokesman for Roth’s office, said Roth couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation.

“However, I will say that Mayor Roth understands the importance of Waipiʻo Valley to our community, particularly those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, and looks forward to addressing the safety issues associated with the roadway in a timely and meaningful fashion,” he stated in an email to 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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