County again seeks to use eminent domain to acquire access to Papaikou Mill Beach

The Hawaii County Council’s Finance Committee voted 9-0 Tuesday in support of a resolution to authorize the use of eminent domain to acquire a trail to Papaikou Mill Beach.

It’s the second time the county’s legislative body has taken up condemnation of a trail to the popular beach a few miles north of Hilo. The matter now heads to the full County Council for consideration.

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The council voted 7-1 with one abstention in November 2012 to use eminent domain — commonly called condemnation — to buy the switchback trail leading to the beach from property owners James Waugh and Charlene Prickett.

The reason for the second resolution is the Feb. 12 dismissal by Hilo Circuit Judge Henry Nakamoto of a previous county condemnation lawsuit.

The dismissal was without prejudice, giving the county the freedom to refile the lawsuit.

County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela decided it would be more expeditious to refile an adjusted civil suit, which required the second council resolution, rather than appeal Nakamoto’s dismissal.

The full council needs to pass the resolution before a new lawsuit can be filed. The previous condemnation lawsuit, which was filed March 1, 2017, named as defendant Papa‘i-kou Landing Inc., a Canadian corporation holding title to former sugar mill property. Papa‘i-kou Landing’s principal is Waugh, a Canadian who lives part-time on the property with his wife, Prickett, whom a legal document identifies as “Papa‘i-kou’s lessee.”

The couple controls access to the beach with a gate that is open about 12 hours a day and locked at 6:30 p.m., although users say the trail is typically closed one day a year.

For more than a decade, a portion of the surrounding community has had an adversarial relationship with Prickett and Waugh, who also hold title to Papaikou Mill Road, which leads to the trail. Opponents claim the couple illegally restricts public access to the beach.

The conflict led to a community petition, numerous public meetings and roadside demonstrations by citizens seeking unfettered access to the shoreline below the mill property.

Prickett and Waugh have contended access to the beach after dark has led to vandalism and other criminal activity, as well as infringement upon their right to quiet enjoyment of their property.

An appraiser hired by the county valued the switchback trail at $38,500 — a price Prickett and Waugh aren’t bound by law to accept.

Six people, all in favor of the resolution, testified online Tuesday.

Longtime environmental and open space activist Deborah J. Ward said there is “evidence that this route to Papaikou Mill was once a public trail, and state law does provide for use of this public access.”

“It would be reasonable to expect that purchase of this property by eminent domain or by mutual agreement through the use of (Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission) funds would be appropriate,” Ward said. “For too many years, public access to this … beach has been denied.”

Chris Yuen, a Board of Land and Natural Resources member and former county planning director, said there were “over 200 pieces of written testimony … unanimously in favor of this resolution.”

“They show … the interest, commitment and the importance of this beach access to the general public, and also the dissatisfaction with the current situation,” Yuen said. “It’s time for the access to be in public control and in county hands.”

Noelie Rodriguez, a retired sociology professor at Hawaii Community College, displayed a thick binder she said contained “5,682 signatures on petition for public access” which she said signified “overwhelming support for this resolution.”

“What’s fascinating about this particular petition is how did we get this many signatures?” Rodriguez noted. “And the fact is that the people would hear about the petition and request to get copies of the petition so that they could pass it around their communities, and the people that they knew had been anxious to sign and get involved in this issue.”

Cliff Kapono, who described himself as a scientist and professional surfer, said he’s part of “a community of environmental stewards who not only access Papaikou beach with respect, but also to remove debris during each visit.”

“I understand that our community needs to come together and help all people understand the law,” Kapono said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see (the property owners) … wanting to integrate into our local community here. That is why I believe it is important for our leaders to step in and make the tough decision to fight for the people who trust you.”

Lito Arkangel, a UH-Hilo Hawaiian studies lecturer and professional musician, said the path to the beach “has been an access trail since ancient Hawaii, up to the plantation era, until now.”

“This is a place where I (took) my children, since they were children,” Arkangel said. “Now they are young adults, and I would like to maintain the opportunity to allow us kamaaina to take our keiki there and our grandchildren there to teach them our traditional knowledge, such as fishing and prawning and taking care of the aina.

“As you can see, in Papaikou, the signatures don’t lie and the community has come together.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter, who is term-limited and will leave office in December, noted she’s been working on acquiring the trail for eight years, taking up where her predecessor, Dominic Yagong, left off.

“Especially on the Hamakua Coast, and since the demise of the sugar industry, there are a lot of places of public access that people bought up the ocean view areas and even mountainsides and have been closing off our public access,” Poindexter said. “And we know our local people rely on the gathering of food, whether it be from the mountain or the ocean, to survive.

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“It’s unfortunate that we have to go through this legal action to make sure that we have our public access.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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