Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Ian Bauer, June 13, 2023
Honolulu is evaluating a local contractor’s bid to use helicopters to hoist and remove all of the once-legally accessible steel steps of the Haiku Stairs from a sheer ridgeline high above Kaneohe and the H-3 freeway.
On June 1, after a nearly monthlong request for bidders, the city opened just one bid for the demolition project — to be overseen by the city’s Department of Design and Construction — initially estimated at $1 million. The Nakoa Cos. Inc. has offered to do the work for $2.26 million.
Since 2021, Mayor Rick Blangiardi and the Honolulu City Council have favored a plan to permanently remove the structure while groups like Friends of the Haiku Stairs — fearing destruction of the World War II-era landmark in Windward Oahu — favor paid, managed access to a site that over the years has switched ownership between the Coast Guard, the Board of Water Supply and ultimately 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 become restricted property. Demolition of the 3,922-step 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.
“Mayor Blangiardi has said all along that he is keeping an open mind on managed access, but has not seen anything at this point that would change his mind about taking down the stairs,” Scott Humber, the mayor’s communications director, said via email. He added that the mayor visited the Haiku Stairs in early May and “met with area residents (at) the proposed site for managed access.”
As far as the bidder’s proposed $2.26 million for this work, Humber said the DDC has requested $1.5 million in Honolulu’s 2024 fiscal year budget, which was approved June 7. Likewise, he noted there is an additional $1.1 million remaining — for a total of $2.6 million — in the city’s current 2023 fiscal year budget dedicated toward removing the stairs.
“Mayor has continued to say the removal of the stairs is due to ongoing issues with trespassing and property damage in the surrounding community, personal injuries, invasive species and overall public safety,” Humber said.
But others, like Sean Pager, president of the Friends of the Haiku Stairs, remain committed to fighting any plan the city puts forward to demolish the mountainside staircase, including taking that fight to court.
“We’re definitely prepared to uphold the law, and our position is the city is not in compliance with the law,” Pager said, adding that his group may file a legal action in the state’s Environmental Court in the near future. “I can’t give you an exact date but it will be soon.”
Pager contends the city has not done its due diligence in terms of complying with environmental laws over this demolition project, which may endanger rare native plants and animals that live solely along the Koolau range, and which may be dispersed or destroyed by the contractors work and the strong blasts from helicopter rotors.
“We’re saying, ‘look, you don’t have to do this, it is illegal,’” Pager added. “It’s also going to be incredibly expensive and wasteful and there’s budgetary ramifications about spending millions of dollars and environmental ramifications and we’re also saying there are viable alternatives.”
Those alternatives include the potential for managed access, which, in this case, Pager likens to what the city already does at the Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve.
“That’s a good model that seems to be working well,” he said of a future managed plan for Haiku Stairs. “Just like Hanauma Bay you reserve, and you pay, and you get briefed, and you watch a safety video and learn about how not to harm the reef — we would do all of those things. We wouldn’t just open up the stairs and say ‘come on, go climb.’”
Under such a plan, Pager said visitors’ access to the Haiku Stairs would be a “guided, managed, curated experience” and “people would be educated and informed, not just about the environmental sensitivities but also the Native Hawaiian cultural protocols, and employ paid guides from the Native Hawaiian community or people who are experts in that culture, just to make sure people are respectful and people are going to a sacred place … in the sense that mountains are generally held as sacred.”
But a managed access plan of Haiku Stairs — which has drawn prior interest from companies like Roberts Hawaii, Kualoa Ranch, as well as smaller ecotourism groups — would still need city approval since the property is now part of the parks department, he said.
Pager said his group continued to meet with the city administration, including Blangiardi.
“We met with the mayor three times this year, in-person meetings,” he said, adding he recently spoke to the mayor by phone. “And we agreed that we would keep talking and we are sharing with him our proposed solutions so, yes, we very much hope to continue to engage with the city and persuade them that they should reconsider. From our perspective, it is a mistake in that they are proposing to remove an incredibly valuable resource.”
However, Pager asserts the city’s budget over the Haiku Stairs demolition has been rather suspicious.
“We find it interesting that Nakoa has emerged as the sole bidder for the removal project and now potentially stands to benefit from an inflated contract in a project whose projected costs have varied over the years,” he said.
In reports and emails obtained by Pager’s group, around 2001, Nakoa was hired to repair the Haiku Stairs — which it did — at a cost of approximately $900,000.
Ten years later, Nakoa’s president, Austin P. Nakoa, told the city in a July 24, 2011, email that his company could do the city’s requested demolition work for $2.5 million to $3 million.
Three years after that, a community task force convened by then-Council member Ikaika Anderson explored options for the Haiku Stairs. The task force’s final 2014 report recommended managed access for the site, but also considered removal as an option. That report cited a total cost to demolish the Haiku Stairs at $4 million to $5 million.
By 2019, following the Board of Water Supply environmental impact statement process, the cost to remove the stairs was reduced to $1 million.
This year, that price tag has climbed again — this time, to roughly $2.6 million and perhaps to an even higher amount.
Opposed to removal
Others against removal of the Haiku Stairs include members of the city-run Kaneohe Neighborhood Board.
In 2017 the board advanced a formal resolution to reopen the Haiku Stairs under a controlled, managed access plan that also respects the rights of private residences and neighbors living nearby. And in 2022 the board issued a related resolution that called for a halt to the city’s demolition plans altogether “until costs have been fully accounted for and alternatives have been considered.”
Holly Sevier, a 13-year member of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board who represents Haiku Valley on the panel, said the plan to remove the stairs — as described within the city’s final environmental impact report — made no sense to her as it involved removing 593 steel modules of the staircase off the steep ridgeline, then flying those dismantled sections over a busy, active freeway.
“The plan for removal is to spend a year and a half helicoptering, digging the structure off and carrying it over the H-3 and hoping nothing drops off,” Sevier said. “They haven’t thought it through.”
Sevier also leads a board subcommittee canvassing neighborhoods near the access points to Haiku Stairs to ask residents about problems related to trespassing. To date, Sevier said the subcommittee has visited a total of 154 homes in the Haiku Valley area.
“Two homeowners mentioned they were personally aggrieved at their homes by trespassing with a further eight saying they have witnessed people walking (or) potentially trespassing nearby,” she said.
She added that this information was presented to the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board as a way to understand the problem of trespassing near the Haiku Stairs and to come up with short-term goals to prevent ongoing impacts to residents.
“We want to hear from neighbors,” Sevier said, adding she hopes to get “actionable solutions” to stop further acts of trespassing. “We also have volunteers fix holes in fences that were very obvious signs of trespassing.”
As far as dealing with trespassers, the city says special-duty Honolulu police officers continue to patrol the area of the Haiku Stairs.
“They go out a minimum of four days per week,” Humber said. On-duty HPD officers make periodic checks and respond to reports of trespassers, though no officers are posted at the base of the Haiku Stairs. “But citations are still being issued to illegal hikers,” Humber said.
He added that the city funds these special-duty officers for $250,000 a year from the city park department’s budget.
Meanwhile, Humber said the city’s evaluation of Nakoa’s bid to remove and airlift the Haiku Stairs is still ongoing.
“According to DDC, once the bid is approved, it could take six months before work actually starts, weather permitting,” he said. “All permitting and flight path approval still need to be completed.”