HILO — The Hawaii County Council passed a resolution authorizing the taking of a public access easement to Papaikou Mill beach.
Eighty-two testifiers, beginning shortly after 9 a.m. and continuing until almost 4 p.m., commented on the resolution and an unrelated geothermal bill, among several other items. The vote to approve the resolution, the first item of the 12-page agenda, came shortly before 6 p.m.
The vote was 7-1, with Councilman Donald Ikeda dissenting and Councilman Fred Blas off-island to attend to a personal matter.
Final approval will require one more vote by the County Council, likely at its meeting on Nov. 21. But council members hope the vote will force the landowners and those who use the beach to come to an agreement before that.
Before the vote, Charlene Prickett, who owns the land along with her husband, Jim Waugh, told the council that “a local management group is forming” that would open beach access between dawn and dusk. She said the park was in much better condition than when she first saw it as 1995 as “a trash-strewn haven for drug dealers and vandals.”
She cited a petition of 21 nearby landowners in opposition to the resolution, while some on the other side cited a petition with 5,400 signatures in favor of it.
Prickett also spoke of making special arrangements to allow fishermen onto the property after dark.
Testimony was divided, as it has in the past, on whether the county should acquire the parcel, but those in support of the resolution were in the majority at the meeting.
Supporters of the resolution, distinguished by their red palaka armbands, asked the council members to ensure beach access for future generations. Those in favor included younger surfers and beachgoers, and older kamaaina who remember fishing and swimming down at the mill site many years ago.
Those against the resolution also included surfers and beachgoers of all ages, and neighbors of Waugh and Prickett, many of whom have bought property within the last 20 years, who defended the landowners as the true caretakers of the land because they have maintained the site despite people who have left trash at the site.
Both sides told the council that the government’s acquisition of private property for shoreline access was unprecedented as far as they knew, but they split on whether that was a positive thing.
Prickett and Waugh have proposed an alternate beach access that begins on land owned by their neighbor Steve Shropshire, who has not endorsed that idea.
Councilwoman Brittany Smart said she had originally thought that eminent domain was not the right way to go. Then she learned about Hawaii Revised Statutes 115-2, which states that “the various counties shall purchase land for public rights-of-way to the shorelines, the sea, and inland recreational areas, and for public transit corridors where topography is such that safe transit does not exist.”
But as other council members took up the measure, it became clear that they were leery about authorizing eminent domain except as a last resort, and some did not seem convinced that it had reached that point.
“I really believe this can be solved peacefully. I don’t think this should be done by eminent domain,” Ikeda said.