In May 2022, guards at Waipi'o Valley Road restrict access to the popular tourist destination Waipi'o Valley. The road is currently closed to the general public, but allows residents and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners access. (Chris Marshall/Courthouse News)
Tour company sues Hawaii County for removing access to beach road
Waipi'o Valley Road, now partially reopened, has been the subject of controversy since its February 2022 closure.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, February 14, 2023
HONOLULU (CN) — Following the closure of Waipi’o Valley Road on Hawaii’s Big Island in early 2022, community outcry prompted a partial reopening of the road. But a Big Island tour company wants compensation for being shut out.
According to a suit filed Monday by Waipi'o Valley Shuttle, which has been running tours in Waipi'o Valley since the 1960s, the county’s closure decision unconstitutionally seized, without compensation, the tour company's private property.
“The declaration and emergency rule adversely impacted the plaintiff’s use of this personal property, i.e., the company, to such an extent that, at least temporarily, the orders entirely diminished the economic benefit of the company,” Waipi'o Valley Shuttle says in its lawsuit.
Defendants include Hawaii County, Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth and Hawaii Department of Public Works Director Ikaika Rodenhurst. Mayor Roth ordered the road closed in February 2022, limiting access only to residents and farmers of the valley and specifically prohibiting tourism activity.
Waipi'o Valley, part of the Big Island’s picturesque Hamakua coast and famous for its lush rainforests, black sand beaches, and choice surfing waves, has always seen a heavy amount of traffic from locals and visitors alike. Known also as “The Valley of the Kings," Waipi'o Valley was once home to King Kamehameha the Great and is an important cultural and spiritual site for Native Hawaiians.
However, access through the valley and to its beach is funneled onto the steep and winding Waipi'o Valley Road. After a geotechnical evaluation determined that years of heavy use had eroded the road and put it at risk for rockfall, Roth first issued an emergency rule to close the one-lane road as a precautionary measure and to assess it for possible repairs.
The divisive closure was hailed by some as a necessary measure to restore the valley after years of being besieged by tourists who have not treated the land with the respect of its former Indigenous residents. Environmentalists welcomed the closure as it would allow time for the valley’s flora and fauna to heal from constant heavy traffic. Despite this, some saw Roth’s initial emergency rule as too restrictive, and discriminatory to those who had a vested interest in Waipi'o Valley.
A lawsuit filed by community group Malama I Ke Kai 'o Waipi'o in April called the closure unlawful because it denied access not only to residents who had a right to public use of Hawaii’s beaches, but particularly to Native Hawaiians who use the valley for spiritual and cultural practices. The group and the county came to an agreement to restore partial access in September 2022, and the road now allows four-wheel drive access to Big Island residents and Native Hawaiians, as well as tour operators with proper permits.
According to Monday’s suit, Waipi'o Valley Shuttle is currently the only tour company operating in the Waipi'o Valley. The tour company, represented by William Dean of Ohana Law Firm, seeks compensation for the “arbitrary and capricious restrictions” imposed by Roth and the county.
“Mayor Roth has placed the cost of the declaration and emergency rule squarely upon the shoulders of private business owners who operate in the Waipi‘o Valley and the Hamakua community more broadly, including the plaintiff, and has failed to justly compensate the Plaintiff for these takings undertaken ostensibly for their benefit to the public,” the company says in its complaint.
The company also claims there was no real scientific backing for the mayor’s claims of what he initially called “imminent danger” for Waipi'o Valley Road travelers and that the risk factors were miscalculated as there have been no recorded injuries or deaths due to roadway failure in 50 years.
The county could not be reached for comment by press time.
HTH: Mayor Roth, county focus of new lawsuit