Council’s ability to close trails debated

A handful of residents spoke out yesterday against a bill that would allow the Kaua’i County Council to close a trail only after a county engineer has determined the path needs to be closed for more than 90 days because of an emergency.

At the council-sponsored public hearing at the historic county building, critics said a state law only allows the council to close a trail through a county law or by resolution, and that intervention by a county official is not legal.

“It is just illegal,” said Hanalei resident Ray Chuan.

But a county staffer said the critics were taking their stands based on their interpretation of the bill.

The provision giving the county engineer such power was part of a bill introduced by former councilman and now Kaua’i Sen. Gary Hooser.

His intention, as the bill states, was to require the Kaua’i County Planning Commission to require a landowner, as a condition for the county to grant final approval of a subdivision, to dedicate public access over his or her property where none exists.

Hooser and other members of the past council worked aggressively to pass the bill to protect public access to the beaches and mountains on land that has been increasingly bought up by mainland buyers who have closed access, citing liability.

Related to the provision giving the county engineer authority to close a trail, Chuan said it should be “stricken out, stay with what is already in statute.”

Chuan said he pointed out the flaw in a similar bill considered by to the past council, but “it was obviously ignored, even though it was perfectly correct for me to point out the illegality of it.”

Chuan said he opposed an earlier bill giving the county engineer the right to close a county pathway or trail, but minus the 90-day condition.

Chuan said he also told the council that “private case law” permits private parties to reopen trails closed by the county for cited reasons of danger and liability.

In recent years, a county engineer closed a county trail leading to Queens Bath at Princeville and a parking lot by the swimming area due to a drowning and harsh weather conditions.

Following public complaints against the closure, Chuan said he and members of the Sierra club on Kaua’i successfully fought for the reopening of the trail and parking lot.

If the current bill goes through and a county trail is ordered closed by a county engineer in the future, Chuan promised residents will rise up and fight the order.

“I can assure you that private party will again, in accordance with state law, will force the reopening there of.”

Another critic, Andy Parx, contended the objectionable provision stemmed from the closing of the Queen’s Bath trail and parking lot.

Another critic, Richard Stauber said he would not trust a decision by a county engineer to close a public trail, and that a determination on whether a trail should be closed should be made within 24 hours.

“I would really suggest we get rid of the 90 days and make 30 days out of it,” Stauber said, a recommendation Parx echoed.

The 90-day period between the time a county engineer closes a trail and the council gets involved will create a loophole that would allow the county official to close numerous trails he or she deems unsafe to use, Parx said.

Such decisions would only create community conflicts, Parx warned.

Voicing her concern, Hawaiian independence advocate Nani Rogers said language should be included in the bill that would respect the gathering rights of Hawaiians.

The language should strengthen the “traditional and customary rights to gather on the ocean or the high water mark…as well as the mountain areas,” Rogers said.

Rogers stressed that state laws already exists to protect these rights and asked the council to “think more Hawaiian in the kind of decisions you make when it comes to access, land issues, water issues.”

The bill also should include language that would provide Hawaiians access to areas for cultural ceremonies.

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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