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Court orders partial halt to Haʻikū Stairs’ demolition

By Ian Bauer | July 8, 2024

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s plans to remove the Haʻikū Stairs above Kaneohe were blocked last week.

By order of the state Intermediate Court of Appeals, a three-judge panel Wednesday granted a temporary injunction brought by the Friends of Haʻikū Stairs in early June, which forces the city to stop its $2.6 million demolition job on the World War II-era mountainside staircase.

But the order, which affects the removal of 664 steel stair modules, is pending more legal proceedings expected to occur in coming months.

“It is hereby ordered that the city is enjoined from further detaching, demolishing, or removing all or any part of the Haʻikū Stairs and/or Moanalua Saddle Stairs — directly or indirectly through its agents, representatives, employees, agencies, and/or contractors — pending disposition of this appeal,” the court’s decision reads.

The court’s ruling, however, does allow the city to remove stairs that its contractor, The Nakoa Cos., already had detached on both sides of the Ko'olau range.

“The city may remove the approximately 60 stair modules of Moanalua Saddle Stairs and approximately 10 to 15 stair modules of the Haʻikū Stairs that were detached by the city’s contractor prior to the entry of this court’s June 20, 2024 order for temporary injunction,” the ruling states.

The legal win for the group bent on saving the Windward Oahu landmark was heartening, according to Justin Scorza, the Friends’ vice president, though he acknowledged that future court actions lay ahead.

“It’s a partial victory because we still have to do the rest of the case, but it’s a victory for preserving the stairs for now until further notice,” Scorza told the Hono­lulu Star-Advertiser by phone. “We bought ourselves a couple more months at least. … They ordered the city to do no more demolition work until further notice.”

In response to the ruling following oral arguments on both sides of the case June 26, the Mayor’s Office thanked the court for its “swift” decision.

“This ruling underscores the urgency of addressing public safety concerns while allowing us to proceed with necessary actions in a responsible manner,” Scott Humber, the mayor’s communications director, said in a written statement.

“Additionally, we are authorized to secure other partially detached modules to enhance safety,” he said. “This limited removal scope, scheduled to proceed with our contractor Nakoa, aims to further deter hikers and reduce associated risks.”

He stressed that the state’s Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve and the city’s Moanalua Valley Neighborhood Park — each officially closed to the public in mid-June to prevent hikers during the planned demolition work — will remain closed, “and trespassers will continue to face fines and arrests.”

“To bolster safety and enforcement, we are actively exploring additional security measures, including increased patrols by the Honolulu Police Department in the coming days and weeks,” Humber said. “Our goal is to prevent unauthorized access to these hazardous areas and ensure strict compliance with existing laws.”

In part, the appellate court’s ruling was based on the Friends’ legal argument that the city failed to complete a new or supplemental environmental impact statement to allow the demolition to lawfully proceed.

In June the group filed an emergency motion of injunction to prevent “imminent and irreparable destruction” on the stairs. The filing came after Senior Environmental Judge Lisa W. Ca­taldo ruled in May to deny the Friends’ latest lawsuit — the second the group has filed in less than a year — requesting the court stop the city’s removal plan above Haʻikū Valley.

The group asserted the city’s prior final EIS, or FEIS — completed in 2020 under former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration — originally was intended to create a managed access plan for the Haiku Stairs.

But the Friends argued the Blangiardi administration violated the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act, challenging the city’s demolition plans for the “Stairway to Heaven” on several grounds, including the city’s need to follow the required environmental review process.

According to Scorza, the court has set a briefing schedule that goes through September.

“The idea is that it’s for the rest of the appellate case, but that’s going to take many months,” he said, noting the appeal will remain in the same court with the same three judges. “But they could decide that we win the appeal and they send the case back down to the lower court for further proceedings. … It could get remanded down to the lower court.”

Scorza said the court’s decision indicates the Friends’ legal argument — that the city failed to complete a supplemental environmental impact statement for its demolition project — is valid.

“Based on what we’ve argued is that the likelihood of irreparable harm is there, because the stairs will be demolished and you can’t put them back together and that we’re likely to win on the merits,” he said.

He added, “We’ve been saying the city’s been wrong to recycle this 5-year-old environmental study that they used to save the stairs. To turn around and use that same study to demolish the stairs, we don’t think that’s right.”

“We think there needs to be updates and further studying and input from the public, including the majority of people who want to save the stairs,” Scorza said.

The city administration — which called for the Haʻikū Stairs’ removal due to public-safety concerns, city liability costs, trespassing and disturbances to nearby residents — previously stated that ongoing legal challenges will not permanently halt the city’s demolition project.

The work — to be done via a Hughes 500D helicopter and roughly a half-dozen ground workers set to hoist hundreds of steel stair modules off the ridgeline above the H-3 freeway — was originally expected to be completed by October, weather permitting.

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