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[Star Advertiser] City’s work to remove Haiku Stairs delayed

Published: Nov. 20, 2022

The fate of a long-closed metal staircase up a mountain ridge in Kaneohe that attracts trespassers to the spectacular, and at one time legally accessible, Stairway to Heaven hike remains uncertain more than a year after Mayor Rick Blangiardi and the Honolulu City Council committed to its removal.

A Blangiardi administration official said Thursday that a request for contractor bids to hoist away the 3,922-step Haiku Stairs in segments by helicopter should go out next spring, which begins March 20.

Previously, work was projected to begin by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, community organization Friends of Haiku Stairs is gearing up to try and block the project in court and persuade government leaders to re-embrace a prior city plan to arrange and manage legal access for hikers to use a reopened staircase.

Sean Pager, president of the nonprofit, said the organization has been growing community support for its goal over the past year through outreach and education efforts after focusing for decades on volunteer maintenance of the stairway, which was installed by the Navy initially as a wooden ladder system for ridge-top communications equipment access in the 1940s and later replaced by metal stairs with railings.

“We as an organization have transitioned to a defacto advocacy role,” he said. “It’s been more and more encouraging, the response we’re getting.”

Pager argues that removing the stairs will cost far more than the most recent city estimate of $1.3 million and that it cannot happen until more environmental protection analysis is done. Additionally, public safety won’t be enhanced, he said, because more people will opt to hike up a more dangerous alternate route to the summit from Moanalua, while some likely will use a path that remains after the stairs are removed.

“It’s not too late to do the right thing,” Pager said. “There’s been too much government blundering ahead.”

FOR MANY years, Haiku Stairs was open to the public as a recreational resource managed through a U.S. Coast Guard station in Haiku Valley. Legal public access was cut off in 1987 due to vandalism and liability concerns, and the city since then tried for years to reestablish public access through stutter steps that included repairing the staircase in 2002 at a cost of $875,000.

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, as the owner of 200 acres of land that included Haiku Stairs, laid the groundwork for its removal in 2017 when it began preparing an environmental impact assessment to get rid of the staircase to eliminate liability, as well as the $250,000 spent annually on security to deter use of the stairs by illegal hikers who for years have disturbed residents in an adjacent neighborhood and cut through their private property.

BWS estimated in 2020 that 10,800 people had been turned away from Haiku Stairs since 2017. In its environmental report, BWS included an option for reestablishing and managing legal access if another government entity took ownership of the property. The city did so in 2020, after the vast majority of nearly 3,800 people who submitted comments to BWS said they wanted Haiku Stairs to be maintained.

Then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell took up the mantle to find a way to reestablish legal public use, for a fee, managed by a private vendor selected via competitive bids.

“Haiku Stairs is world famous as one of the most breathtaking hikes in the world,” Caldwell said in a statement at the time. “I’m very pleased that we will be able to save this treasured site from being torn down.”

Caldwell’s term expired at the end of 2020 without a viable reopening plan, in part because use of land for possible new access that was owned by entities including Kamehameha Schools and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands could not be arranged.

Instead, a reconstituted City Council moved in the opposite direction, inserting $1 million into the city budget in early 2021 to pay for removing the stairs.

Separately, Council member Esther Kia‘aina, who was elected in 2020 to represent parts of Windward Oahu including Haiku Valley, introduced a resolution to encourage Blangiardi’s administration to remove the stairs, in part so that more public input could be received.

Pager said more majority public support to maintain the stairs was expressed at Council hearings, but the Council voted 9-0 to pass the resolution in September 2021.

Kia‘aina endorsed removal, saying at the time that Haiku Stairs is too much of a city liability and expense that also negatively affects the quality of life for nearby residents. She said managed public access wasn’t feasible.

Blangiardi, who initially expressed support for the concept of a managed-access plan, agreed with the Council decision.

“We recognize the interest the stairs have to certain community groups, however issues such as trespassing, personal injuries, invasive species and overall safety of the public cannot be ignored,” he said in a statement after the resolution passed.

Pager contends that injuries on Haiku Stairs have never been significant compared with other Hawaii hiking trails, and that removing the staircase could open a pathway for invasive species to climb the mountain unless expensive revegetation work is done with native plants.

THE COST for stair removal and remediation, according to Friends of Haiku Stairs, could be over $10 million, or 10 times the $1 million estimate contractor The Nakoa Cos. Inc. produced for BWS in 2019.

Pager noted that a 2014 report from a Haiku Stairs working group that included city representatives pegged the removal cost at $4 million to $5 million.

City officials, who increased their Haiku Stairs removal cost appropriation to $1.3 million early this year to account for inflation — before inflation soared — said Thursday that additional funding may be necessary but dismissed the possible $10 million cost suggested by Friends of Haiku Stairs.

“They certainly are entitled to their opinion but our estimate is based on our engineering study,” Scott Humber, Blangiardi’s director of communications, said in an email.

Pager believes the city won’t be able to proceed with removal as intended because of alleged shortcomings in the environmental impact statement finalized by BWS in 2020 and accepted by the state Office of Planning and Sustainable Development. Friends of Haiku Stairs is raising money to support potential legal action to stop city removal work.

“Our legal team is working on a multifaceted strategy to block the city’s removal efforts, recruiting experts to testify regarding threats to endangered species, assessing the impacts of soil runoff on the downstream watershed, and bolstering our historical preservation defenses,” the organization states on its website.

The effort also aims to force the city to produce a new environmental impact study, which would allow more public input. The city said the BWS environmental report for removal does not need to be redone.

Pager said he would like for litigation to be avoided. “We’re not rushing to file lawsuits,” he said. “We want to be prepared.”

As of Friday, the Friends of Haiku Stairs fundraiser on gofundme.com, billed as supporting the 80th birthday of the stairway, had raised about $3,200 toward its $20,000 goal by year’s end.

The organization also plans a Dec. 15 benefit concert by local musician Tavana at Cafe Kopi in Kailua with $30 general admission.

To demonstrate fresh support for its goal to reopen the stairway, Friends of Haiku Stairs started a new online petition earlier this year that is approaching 5,000 signatures, according to Pager. A prior online petition last year drew support from about 12,000 respondents, including many living outside Hawaii.

Pager also believes the state could use some of its land outside of what DHHL owns to provide legal access and is hopeful that Gov.-elect Josh Green can help facilitate such an arrangement.

In a response to a candidate questionnaire from Friends of Haiku Stairs, Green expressed hope that a managed-access solution can be reached but noted that issues with the stairway lie primarily within the purview of the city, according to the organization.

The city, which is still paying $250,000 a year for security around Haiku Stairs, is moving forward as planned, Humber said.

To proceed with removal, the city will need key permits or approvals from the city Department of Planning and Permitting, the State Historic Preservation Division and the state Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands.


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If you are able, please leave your comments of support on the article here, or write a letter to the editor in support of the Stairs here.

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