Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Dissenter will appeal
permit for Saddle Road

By Rod Thompson and Rosemarie Bernardo |

HILO >> A state hearing officer has approved a conservation district permit that will allow multimillion-dollar reconstruction of the Saddle Road linking Hilo and Kona.

But Big Island hunter and lawyer Katsuya Yamada, who challenged the permit in a yearlong contested case, says he will appeal the decision of hearing officer Benjamin Matsubara in Circuit Court.

Such an appeal would likely lead to another delay for the 47-mile project, which was proposed decades ago and has been in active preparation since 1992.

State and federal highways officials applied for a permit in January 2000 to upgrade Saddle Road. The permit was approved Sept. 28.

According to an order by the state Board of Land & Natural Resources, Saddle Road's "narrow width and poor pavement conditions encourage motorists to drive in the center of the road, increasing the potential for accidents, including head-on collisions." The road's steep grades and sharp curves also make it difficult for motorists to see ahead or pass other motorists.

According to documents, the purpose of the project is to provide a safe route for cross-island traffic.

Traffic between Hilo and Kona now goes primarily in a semicircle through the northern part of the island.

Improvement of the existing badly paved, one-lane Saddle Road would permit a more direct route but cost $163 million in four phases over an unspecified period of time.

Hawaii County Deputy Managing Director Peter Young said the road would bring east and west sides of the Big Island closer together psychologically and socially.

"It's functional as well as emotion," he said. "It's not just another road. We hope it can be built."

Construction on Saddle Road must start within a year of the permit's approval. Construction must be completed within three years of inception.

Yamada focused on a small portion of the U.S. Department of Defense-funded $46 million first phase, which goes through the Army's Pohakuloa Training Area. Yamada's challenge was only to a 1.5-mile section through forested state conservation land.

"I'm not opposed to the project. I wish they would keep it out in the lava field," he said.

In May 2000, Yamada sought to intervene in the case, citing the potential loss of the hunting area, the diminishment of natural beauty and the loss of natural resources. Two months later, he was allowed to intervene by the Land Board.

Yamada said in documents that hearing officer Matsubara failed to consider the effects of realignment of the road on nine endangered and threatened species in or near the area of the road.

Those species include the endangered palila bird, of which four have been seen in the area. Yamada said biologists surveyed only the 200-foot-wide corridor where the new alignment would go. They should have looked at the entire area, he said.

Project officials have said that in exchange for using 102 acres of palila habit for the new alignment, 9,345 acres of new palila habitat will be created on other parts of Mauna Kea. Yamada says the law does not allow such a trade-off.

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