(BIVN) – Local officials were given an update on the ongoing dispute over public access to Pāpaʻikou Mill Beach during a Hawaiʻi County Council committee meeting on Tuesday.
“I wanted to bring forth this communication because in November of 2020, the previous council did pass a resolution supporting the acquiring of the Pāpaʻikou Mill trail access through eminent domain,” said Hāmākua councilwoman Heather Kimball as she opened the Finance Committee discussion. “There are a lot of folks out there in my district that support continued public access to this particular location, and there’s been increased anxiety recently because the particular property where the trail resides has been placed on the market.”
The Hawaiʻi County Council first voted to pursue securing the beach access through eminent domain back in 2012.
“Why are we hearing that the Mayor’s office has put public access to Papaʻikou Mill Beach on hold?” wrote Cory Harden in public testimony. “The County has a legal obligation to provide access, and it’s taking far too long. Three different mayors have now watched as the can is kicked down the road. Babies born the day the original resolution passed are now in fourth grade.”
“I’ve talked to the Mayor Roth and told him I know you are personal friends with the landowners and you represent the whole county not only certain people in our community,” wrote Kalani Lyman in testimony to the Council. “Today 2022 the land is for sale and the new landowners may become more of problem as we continue to push for public access to this beautiful place. Our fight is to keep this beautiful beach access for all generations.”
“Papaʻikou Mills Beach is one of the few spots north of Hilo with easy access into the water from a sand beach,” wrote Ninole resident – and Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources member – Chris Yuen. “There is no officially recognized public access to the shoreline between Honoli’i and Onomea, a distance of about four miles. The Papaʻikou community and the general public deserve a guaranteed access to this beautiful spot. It has been argued that the private landowner currently allows access. I suggest that the councilmembers review the 261 letters and emails it received on Res. No. 732-20. There are many comments about difficulties with the privately-controlled access. This situation has been full of conflict.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, Hawaiʻi County Corporation Counsel Elizabeth Strance explained how the County was previously unsuccessful in court, mostly on a technicality. The County failed to properly describe the trail, apart from the entire property.
“I do have the words from Mayor Roth,” explained Hawaiʻi County Managing Director Lee Lord. “He was very sorry he couldn’t be here he had to take care of a personal matter with his family on the mainland today. He did make the decision not to move forward with further legal action in the Pāpaʻikou Mill access road matter.” Lord then read the following statement, provided by Mayor Roth:
“The decision was made for several reasons. During the last administration, staff at the corporation counsel advised the administration and a council member against moving forward for liability reasons, and also a risk manager hired by the county gave the same advice for liability reasons. It is his understanding that this information was not shared with the council as a whole. As you should be aware, the County tried the case and lost, as Judge Strance said. Not only did the county lose, but it was required to spend a lot of hard-earned county tax dollars to pay for the other side’s legal fees. If we were to go forward again, and lose, it is quite likely that the County would have to pay more county taxpayer dollars for legal fees. These funds could also include more than just legal fees. Assuming that the County were to win this suit, the County would again gain very little. At the current time, the owner opens the trail every day of the year, but one, in which the owner closes for maintenance and to preserve the owner property’s rights. The owner maintains the trail at their expense and liability and has rules which they enforce. Some people object to the rules, but they are no different than the rules the County has at beach parks, which we do oversee. As stated earlier, there are liabilities that the County would have to tend to and possibly need to make the trail ADA accessible at the County’s expense. There are several other reasons and legal issues for my decision that involved the best interest of the County and stewardship of the county funds.”
“I do want to circle back to some of the statements made regarding if we were to proceed with this,” commented Kona councilmember Holeka Goro Inaba. “What were the words used… ‘we’d be getting very little’. I think it’s a little inconsiderate considering the number of testifiers who came today and wrote into us regarding this the whole situation. It’s not ‘very little’ to the people who can’t access the ocean, and while I understand the liability and all of that, that needs to be considered on the County’s part. When we have private land owners creating their rules for access to the shoreline, I see that as very problematic, and I’m happy that council member Kimball has brought forth this information.”