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Mayor Roth to announce advisory committee to guide future of controversial Waipiʻo Valley

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Taro farmers work in the Waipiʻo Valley that is accessible by a steep, narrow road in desperate need of repair. Photo Credit: Megan Moseley

Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth said he will be officially announcing a new advisory committee this week to help guide the future of Waipiʻo Valley after repairs to its now dangerous road are complete.

Waipiʻo Valley has been the center of controversy since Roth issued an emergency proclamation in February to close the road to traffic following a geotechnical study that found the 1.4-mile roadway to be unsafe. 

Hawaiʻi County was challenged by Mālama i ke kai ‘o Waipi’o (MaKa), an ocean advocacy group, which argued the mayor did not have the authority or right to block public access. As a result, following a lawsuit, the road closure was amended to include access for residents with 4-wheel drive. But the issue of road safety remains

“We’re going to make it as safe as possible,” Roth said.

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While the county departments work on the road repairs, with some starting as early as November, Roth said they are forming this committee in hopes of giving leadership to the community. 

The advisory committee appears to be an attempt to help quell the conflict that has resulted in heated discussions and tensions at public meetings hosted by the county, and an ongoing protest at the top of the valley where Protect Waipi’o Valley members have been camping out and directing traffic away from the valley since September.  

The committee will include a variety of representatives such as a taro farmer, an ocean person, a member of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, Waipiʻo kūpuna (honored elder), a local student, a resident of Kukuihaele and more. 

“The idea is to get the committee to tell us what they want to happen,” Roth said. “Once we open the road, we don’t want to go back to the same issue we had for the past 20 years.”

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The issues plaguing one of Hawai’i’s last standing Hawaiian communities and historic area include unmanaged tourism leading to litter and pollution, trespassing, destruction of ancient sites and even open defecation. 

Much of Waipi’o Valley is private property, but due to its beauty and allure it has attracted a growing number of tourists over the past couple of decades, causing stress for local residents. There also is the issue of access to the popular Black Sand Beach, which can only be obtained by crossing private property. 

Roth said he believes there is one area of common ground: “I don’t think anyone wants Waipi’o Valley to turn into Waikīkī.”

David Anderson, a 40-year resident on the Hamakua Coast who was involved with the Mālama i ke kai ‘o Waipi’o lawsuit against the County, said he thinks the advisory group is a step in the right direction. 

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“I think it’s an excellent step forward to move an adversarial relationship amongst the various community groups on Big Island regarding Waipi’o to a more collaborative working relationship,” he said.

Waipiʻo Valley has many short-term and long-term problems that are best addressed when everyone is at the table to work through the challenges, Anderson said.

Steve Strauss, the lawyer representing MaKa, said part of the settlement agreement for the administration was to create an advisory committee, but he still sees a potential problem with the move. 

“The plaintiff’s perspective is that the long-term issues involving Waipi’o Valley and access are best addressed by the County Council and not the executive branch [Mayorʻs office],” he said. 

And while the advisory committee will be formed to help address these issues and guide the county on action moving forward, questions still linger regarding how that group will be formed to represent the dynamic views of the area. 

Ray Kong, a former liaison between Bishop Museum and lessee taro farmers tenants in Waipio Valley, said: “What’s the process of selection and how do we ensure everyone’s interests are represented?”

Megan Moseley
Megan Moseley is a multi-platform journalist based in Hawaiʻi. Her experience ranges from long and short-form reporting to print, digital, radio and television news coverage. In Hawaiʻi, she's worked for local media outlets and has covered a wide range of topics including local and state politics, environmental affairs, Native Hawaiian issues, travel, tourism and education. She covers the West for Restaurant Hospitality.

She's a 2010 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, with a Bachelor's of Science degree in Magazine Journalism and specializations in Geology and History. She's currently working on her master's degree from New York University in journalism and is focused on conflict resolution and peace practices in indigenous cultures in the Pacific.

Find her @meganmoseleyjournalist or at www.meganmoseley.com.
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