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[Star Advertiser] Column: 'Stairway to Heaven' can still be saved

By Sean A. Pager

Published June 8, 2022

As the president of Friends of Ha‘iku Stairs (FHS), I apologize to the volunteers who for decades dedicated thousands of hours maintaining the Ha‘iku Stairs through regular FHS work trips. Last Wednesday, during a live news interview, City Councilmember Esther Kiaaina questioned why FHS wasn’t taking care of the invasive species now rampant along the Stairs. To set the record straight, our work trips included successfully removing invasive species. We were forced to stop in 2014 because the city ended our access permits. FHS continues to offer to maintain the Stairs; we continue to be denied by the city.

Furthermore, contrary to the councilmember’s claims, FHS does have a managed access proposal that provides a fully costed analysis of the requirements. We have repeatedly shared our plan with city leaders without response. We are currently broadening the proposal by seeking input from other community stakeholders. We welcome city representation at the table with us, but we will continue this grassroots process regardless.

The Council says that providing access requires agreements with adjoining landowners. True, but the surrounding landowners are all public entities. The Kaneohe Neighborhood Board in 2004, the District 3 Councilmember Ikaika Anderson Task Force in 2014, and the Honolulu Board of Water Supply in 2019 all recommended access routes that would go entirely through city- and state-owned land. In 2020, the city itself requested proposals for managed access. Fourteen private entities submitted proposals, including FHS. These proposals were all ignored.

Some Haiku Valley residents are fed up with trespassing — rightly so. Trespassing is entirely a result of the city’s decision to close access. When the Stairs were open to the public under the Coast Guard, trespassing was virtually nonexistent.

As an interim measure, the city could prevent trespassing cheaply and effectively. The Stairs’ steep terrain afford natural chokepoints. A well-designed barrier at these chokepoints would be virtually impassable.

We stand ready to do our part and work with the city. We are working on barrier designs. We will continue to strengthen our managed access proposal, address community concerns, and engage stakeholders. We hope the city will work with us to find viable solutions — both interim and longer-term. Currently, we have dated documentation validating our repeated efforts to meet with the mayor and city officials. We await their response.

The City Council’s recent vote to fund demolition came despite evidence showing a majority of the Oahu public favor a managed access alternative, and despite the pleas of thousands of concerned voters who took time to get involved in the political system to ask to save the Stairs — representing more than 90% of testimony received. The public voice is being ignored.

The spotlight is now on the mayor who must approve the city budget. Alex Kozlov, director of the city’s Department Design and Construction, claims in writing that his $1.3 million budget will cover the full costs of demolition. He says his estimate is “detailed, deliberate and professional.” Mayor Blangiardi: Do you stand behind your director’s estimate? Will you guarantee no more than $1.3 million of taxpayer money will be spent? Will you explain how your plan avoids harming the environment during and after demolition? And will you make these details public?

The mayor cited concerns over liability involved should the Stairs reopen. Yet the record shows zero accidental deaths or lawsuits from use of the Stairs. Moreover, our managed access proposal would cost the city nothing and would fully protect taxpayers from liability.

We urge the city to respect the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board’s call for a one-year halt on demolition to allow these issues to be explored more thoroughly. It’s not too late to heed the majority of constituents across Oahu who want to save the “Stairway to Heaven,” not destroy it.

Sean A. Pager is president of Friends of Haʻiku Stairs.

Full article here.

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