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Fate of Hawaii’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ hike hangs in balance at appellate court

KEYA RIVERA, Courthouse News Service | June 27, 2024

HONOLULU (CN) — Attorneys debated the future of Oahu's famed Ha'ikū Stairs before Hawaii's Intermediate Court of Appeals on Wednesday in a hearing centered on Honolulu's controversial decision to remove the "Stairway to Heaven” hike. 

Last Thursday, the same court temporarily blocked the city and county of Honolulu from dismantling the steep 3,922-step trail, which officially has been closed to the public since 1987, but continues to attract hikers with its stunning views, drawing popularity on social media.

The nonprofit group Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs is seeking a longer-lasting injunction, arguing that the city hasn't conducted the proper environmental reviews to take down the stairs.

“We think that the environmental impact statement that they performed way back in 2019 is too stale and old to be relied upon now,” the group's vice president, Justin Scorza, said in an interview with Courthouse News. “In those five years, lots of things have changed.” 

Wednesday’s arguments highlighted the Hawaiian hoary bat, Hawaii's only native terrestrial mammal and its official state mammal.

The endangered species, which is protected by federal and state laws, has been detected in the Haiku Valley and could be displaced by the planned demolition, said Timothy Vandeveer, an attorney representing Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs.

City attorney Daniel M. Gluck presented four maps on a poster board. He argued that bats were inhabiting the area even in 2019, at the time of the original environmental impact statement, suggesting that statement remains adequate.

Acting Chief Judge Katherine G. Leonard, Judge Keith K. Hiraoka and Associate Judge Sonja M.P. McCullen sat on the panel at the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs, which has championed the preservation of Windward Oahu's Ko'olau mountain range for four decades, is appealing a judge's January dismissal of its 48-page lawsuit

In addition to their environmental argument, Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs says the history of the stairs, which the U.S. military built during World War II, is a reason to preserve them.

During the war, Scorza explained, the valley allowed for long-range radio transmission the U.S. used it to transmit signals to submarines and warships in Japanese waters.

Today, technically off-limits to visitors, the path has been the site of at least 15 arrests and 80 trespassing citations since April 2023. Just this past weekend, two men were arrested and charged after police caught them hiking the stairs, while a third individual escaped into the mountain. The two men caught were charged with trespassing and released on a $100 bail. Violators face up to a $1,000 fine and 30 days' imprisonment. 

Issues caused by trespassing, Scorza said, are the main reason anyone wants the stairs torn out. But the blame rests with the city, he said.

"This is a problem that the city is 100% responsible for," he said. "They've created this nightmare for the neighbors by not allowing any legal access to this beautiful hike that people want to see. It's so easy for them to just create a trail that avoids the neighborhood."

In an April press release announcing the deconstruction of the stairs, Mayor Rick Blangiardi described the removal project as "long overdue."

"This decision that was made was predicated upon our respect for the people who live in and around the entrance to the stairs, our respect for our ʻāina, and our respect for both the future and the past history of the culture of the Haʻikū community," Blangiardi said.

The city hired The Nakoa Companies Inc. for the removal project, estimated to cost $2.5 million. However, the project is on pause in the wake of the Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs' lawsuit saying the city failed to make sure the project was environmentally sound.

In its two-page ruling last week, Hawaii's Intermediate Court of Appeals blocked the project until the court rules on the plaintiff's preliminary injunction motion.

Honolulu maintains that it carefully considered public safety, environmental concerns and the impact of the removal on local residents. The city says it has the authority to remove the stairs as part of its management of public property.

The dispute highlights the tension between preserving a unique cultural and historical landmark and addressing concerns about safety, trespassing and environmental impact. 

"After decades of the community asking the government for relief, we had an obligation to make a decision and a decision that I knew would displease some people but at the end, I had to look at a lot of variable factors," Honolulu City Council vice chair Esther Kiaaina, who introduced the resolution to remove the stairs, said in an April press conference.

She went on to say that getting rid of the stairs was a “hard decision” but is for the “good of the community”. 

Supporters of the stairs argue that the trail could be managed safely and generate tourism revenue, while opponents cite the burden on local residents and potential liability issues.

"The city has a valuable asset," said Inessa Love, a University of Hawaii economics professor and economic adviser for the Friends of Ha'ikū Stairs. "Charging for access to the stairs can bring millions of dollars of income to the city that can be used for the purpose of improving lives."

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