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Lawsuit expected over dismantling of Haiku Stairs

Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser. By Ian Bauer.

The Friends of Haiku Stairs, a 36-year-old nonprofit dedicated to preserving the once-legally accessible steel steps built along a sheer ridgeline above Kaneohe, is suing the city to prevent removal of the stairs via helicopters by a newly contracted demolition company.

The nonprofit contends the city has not updated or completed the necessary environmental impact studies required to legally demolish the World War II-era stairs, and has therefore violated basic Hawaii Environmental Protection Act, or HEPA, rules in its attempts to advance the “Haiku Valley Nature Preserve Removal of Haiku and Moanalua Saddle Stairs” project. The lawsuit is expected to be filed in 1st Circuit Court today.

The city began planning for removal of the stairs in 2021, citing safety concerns, liability costs to the city, trespassing/neighborhood disturbances and invasive species.

On Monday, the city administration said it had no knowledge of the lawsuit. “I’m not aware of the lawsuit and haven’t seen the lawsuit to this point,” Scott Humber, the mayor’s director of communications, told the Honolulu Star- Advertiser.

The 50-page lawsuit argues that the court should halt the city’s mountainside demolition project due to what it calls the city’s lack of environmental documents and related factors.

“The stated purpose of the proposed action is the destruction of the Haiku Stairs, an iconic and historic monument consisting of a steel hiking trail structure of over 3,000 steps along Oahu’s Koolau mountain range,” the lawsuit reads. “The action would involve the demolition and removal of the Stairs which are situated on land classified as conservation district and designated as federally protected critical habitat for multiple endangered species.”

“However, rather than follow the prescribed process and faithfully comply with HEPA’s mandate that an EIS must be prepared for any proposed action that ‘may’ have a significant impact on the environment,” the lawsuit claims the city “instead chose to cite an outdated and inadequate Final Environmental Impact Statement that was prepared for a separate and distinct action completed in 2019 by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply in conjunction with the city.”

And the lawsuit asserts “to the extent there is an overlap of the prior 2019 action and the current Proposed Action, defendant city ignores HEPA rules mandating that a supplemental EIS be prepared when an essentially different action is under consideration due to a substantive change in the size, scope, intensity, use, location, timing, and/or other characteristics that may have a significant effect on the environment.”

In recent years, calls from some in the community say the Haiku Stairs should be removed as its presence to a nearby residential neighborhood has promoted trespassing, noise, traffic and related public safety issues.

Since 2021, Mayor Rick Blangiardi and the City Council have favored a plan to permanently remove the structure that over the years has switched ownership between the Coast Guard, the Board of Water Supply and ultimately to the city itself.

Last year the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation became the new steward of what for years was a legally accessible staircase — known by visitors and locals alike as the Stairway to Heaven, with its spectacular views and unique mountain hiking experience — but which has, of late, become restricted property.

Demolition of the metal staircase — first built by the Navy as a wooden ladder system for communications equipment access in the 1940s and later replaced by metal stairs with railings that steeply work their way to the top of Haiku Valley and the Koolau mountain range — was to begin at the end of 2022.

Conversely, Friends of Haiku Stairs has promoted saving the Windward Oahu landmark via managed access of the site.

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