Beach Access, Legal
January 22 2013

Surfrider Overcomes Big Challenge to Access on the Big Island!

by Angela Howe and Stuart Coleman

In Hawaii, Surfrider Foundation’s Hilo Chapter has fought for over the past two years to open up trail access to Papaikou Mill Beach, one of the few sandy beaches on the East side of the Big Island.  Known as a popular surfing, fishing and recreational spot, the beach is also used by students at the University of Hawaii (UH) at Hilo for educational purposes in observing the endangered monk seal and other ecological resources.  Neighbors and beach goers also clean the trail and beach when it is open.

The access issue began when the current owners bought the property in 1995, then used a fence and gate in 2004 to begin limiting access to certain hours of the day.  They did this despite the fact that the trail had been open to public use for decades prior.  In fact, maps dating back to the 1880s illustrate a public beach access along the property, and in 1970 the County included the beach access in a survey report.  Still, the new owners limited the public’s access at their discretion and even called for the arrest of surfers using the access trail after their set hours.  Surfrider’s Hilo Chapter worked with local homeowners and community groups like Global HOPE (UH-Hilo student organization) to recover public access in a peaceful and cooperative way. 

At one point, the Hilo Chapter anticipated the use of litigation to establish a public prescriptive easement as a last resort for opening the trail.  However, at the same time, members were also asking elected officials to do something.  After years of public petitions and protests, the County Council finally acted to prevent messy litigation and protect the public’s historic right of access!

On November 21, 2012, the County of Hawaii (Big Island) passed Resolution No. 308-12 to authorize the eminent domain of the Papaikou Mill beach trail as a historic route.  But the County still needs to finalize the condemnation settlement with the property owners and the Director of Finance to initiate any funding mechanisms required for acquisition of the access trail.  The Chapter will continue to support the County in finalizing these efforts and establishing a public access trail at Papaikou Mill Beach.

We congratulate the Hilo Chapter and its leaders (especially James Kuriyama, Joel Tessier and Niels Christensen) for driving the establishment of an important local right of access and furthering Surfrider Foundation’s objective of securing universal, low-impact beach access for all people.