Waipiʻo Valley Residents Sound Off on Partial Reopening of Crumbling Road

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Waipiʻo Valley residents expressed dismay Friday about Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth’s decision to partially reopen the narrow, steep, crumbling road into the picturesque black sand beach and farming community.

Pedestrians on Waipi’o Valley Road pull over for a passing vehicle before rules were changed banning foot traffic on the road. Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

In an online community Zoom meeting hosed by the mayor and attended by 124 residents, the overwhelming sentiment was the mayor’s order to amend his emergency proclamation to allow Hawaiʻi residents in 4-wheel drive vehicles to traverse the precarious road before any improvements have been made puts the breaks on progress to fix the problems.

“I’ve been physically sick and my heart is pounding,” Ku Kahakalau told the mayor. “Everything you said makes no sense at all. … This is really ludicrous.”

Kahakalau was one of about a dozen testifiers who spoke in opposition of Roth’s move, which the mayor announced late Thursday. All but one testifier was in opposition to the change, which goes into effect at 9 a.m. on Monday.

The majority of testifiers concurred that reopening the road before any improvement work on the imminent dangers of falling rocks and other issues was reckless. Some said that navigating the one-lane road is even more dangerous now because trees and shrubbery have since grown across a handful of spots, making hairpin turns even more blind.

“I know you’re doing the best you can. A lot of this was put in your lap,” resident Jim Cain told the mayor. “You gotta listen to the Waipiʻo community. … It’s not a tourist or hiking destination and we have to start with that.”


The online session was for county staff to inform people about the tweaked emergency rules, which originally went into effect on Feb. 25 after engineers issued a report about the imminent risk of rockfalls and slope instability along the 1.5-mile road. It also was for the county to gather public feedback.

No questions and answers were allowed, but another live meeting is scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Oct. 5 at Honokaʻa People’s Theater. At that meeting, there will be at Q&A session. The county said by Oct. 5 it should be further along on the road work improvement plan. It’s been studying a geotechnical study that went public earlier this year that analyzes the road’s condition and is crafting a plan to begin implementing work phases.

“I just want to reaffirm, this is something we did not take lightly,” Roth said.

There is another camp on the polarizing, passionate topic. Several people said in February the emergency rules were unfairly cutting off access to public beaches and hiking trails at the valley floor.

In April, community group Malama I Ke Kaio Waipiʻo, which includes Native Hawaiians, sued the County, claiming the road closure was illegal because it blocked their access for spiritual and customary practices in the valley.


Mayor Roth said both sides of the issue have expressed their views to him over the last several months, and he understands why both sides are upset.

“We’re trying to do the best we can with the information that we have,” he said.

Beginning Monday, all Big Island residents, county-permitted tour company operators and those seeking to practice their Native Hawaiian traditional or customary rights can travel down the road but only if their vehicle has 4-wheel drive.

Mayor Mitch Roth speaks from his office on Friday about his road closure changes. Tom Hasslinger/Big Island Now

Under the new rule, the road still remains closed to pedestrians and ATVs. People riding in the back of pickup trucks won’t be allowed, either. Severe weather or road work can necessitate road closures in the future. The licenses for tour operators will be effective for four months and workers will be stationed at the top of the road at the lookout point to check for residency proof and tour licenses and that people are following proper protocols. They will call police if there are rule breakers.

Since Feb. 25, the road has been open only to valley residents with vehicles and people who tended to agriculture crops in the fertile valley known for taro farming.


Mayor Roth said in a press release issued before the meeting: “Our administration has worked incredibly hard to ensure that we put the safety of our community at the forefront of all we do, and as such, have had to make some tough decisions, including closing the valley road to some of its most frequent patrons.

“That said, we have listened to the community, considered comments of the judge in litigation, and worked closely with the Department of Public works and experts to explore options that would provide greater access while we plan and implement road repairs.”

Valley resident Carl Sims III told Roth that his changes were “disrespecting our Waipiʻo community” by appeasing the wishes of people who don’t live there.

“It’s really disrespectful you’re listening to the outside influence,” he said. “You better make the right decision, my friend.”

At the online meeting, Chris Yuen was the lone supporter of the updated rules, adding that the thought the changes don’t go far enough. He said he thought the dangers posed in a county-commissioned geotechnical study on the condition of the road grossly exaggerated the risk.

“There really is no need to ban pedestrians and ATVs,” he said before his testimony was cut short because the scope of the meeting was focused on the amended rules.

The Office of the Mayor will begin issuing permits to licensed tour operators beginning on Sept. 19. 

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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