Out-of-staters sue Hawaii gated community for access

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HONOLULU -- A gated community here that denies out-of-state visitors the right to pass through its property to access a popular hiking trail on state land is being sued by four visitors who were turned away.

The suit, brought by a husband and wife from Chicago and a father and daughter who are Americans living in Japan, names the Hawaii Loa Ridge Owner's Association and the city of Honolulu as defendants.

"It's ironic that we have the state spending $60 million a year on tourism marketing with the message to come and enjoy our natural resources and when [visitors] do that they are turned away," said John Bay, an attorney for the visitors who brought the suit.

The city of Honolulu is a defendant because it granted the neighborhood a public access ordinance that excludes those without a Hawaii driver's license.

For years, the Hawaii Loa Ridge Owner's Association, an exclusive neighborhood in the hills just east of Honolulu, has restricted access to the four-mile Hawaii Loa Ridge Trail to residents of the state only. It is only in the past year that any visitors have decided to make an issue of it.

Hikers who do have a Hawaii driver's license also must sign a liability waiver to pass through the neighborhood in order to get to the hiking trail.

The suit claims that state law prohibits private property owners from restricting access to state land -- the same laws that allow for public beach access. The suit also claims the neighborhood is violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. constitution by discriminating against out-of-state visitors.

The visitors are asking that the showing of a driver's license and signing a liability waiver be dropped as a requirement of passing through the neighborhood.

But the neighborhood isn't budging. "The association's response is going to be to contest the allegations," said Fritz Rohlfing, an attorney representing Hawaii Loa Ridge Owner's Association. "We think the current easement is not unconstitutional or illegal and we will continue to abide by it."

The state of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees state hiking trails, has jumped in on the side of the out-of-state hikers, with members of its department attending a press conference by the plaintiffs announcing the suit.

And the Sierra Club Hawaii chapter has taken out a full-page ad in the Honolulu Advertiser condemning the association's policy and announcing the suit. "The public has an intrinsic right to use state land," said Curt Cottrell, program manager for the state hiking trails department, called Na Ala Hele.

"We're on the sidelines cheering for the hikers. You shouldn't have to show identification or sign anything to go hiking."

Cottrell said in the past the state has asked the city and the neighborhood to drop its requirements, but "they were super-reluctant."

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