WAILUKU - Jurors decided Wednesday that the state, not Haleakala Ranch, owns a section of a historic trail that once ran from Makawao town to the summit of Haleakala.
After a six weeks of hearing evidence and a day of deliberations, the 12 members of the jury found that the historic trail existed before the Great Mahele land division of 1848 and is thereby a public highway under the Highways Act of 1892; that the government opened, laid out or built the existing trail; and that the existing trail today, though it may have moved from its original location, is the successor trail to the ancient route.
"We're extremely happy with the verdict. This has been a long hard process, but the facts and the law were very much in our favor and we're pleased with this decision," said attorney Tom Pierce, who represented nonprofit group Public Access Trails Hawaii, after the jury delivered its verdict Wednesday afternoon. PATH filed the lawsuit against the ranch in January 2011.
Attorney Tom Pierce, who represented Public Access Trails Hawaii in the lawsuit against Haleakala Ranch, hugs Deputy Attorney General William Wynhoff after hearing the verdict Wednesday. The group filed the class-action lawsuit in 2011 over ownership of the Haleakala Trail that runs through Haleakala Ranch lands. The state joined PATH as a plaintiff last year.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
"But, there's more to come," Pierce added.
Just because the jury found that the state owns the 3-mile section of the trail that cuts through Haleakala Ranch lands does not necessarily guarantee the public will regain unfettered access to the trail "as they had in the old days," Pierce said.
"Even though we've gotten to this stage, there's still questions as to whether we will get access. We will remain in talks with the state about that," Pierce said.
Earlier this year, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources proposed a land exchange with Haleakala Ranch "to avoid costly litigation." The state proposed to give up title to the 3.3-mile portion of Haleakala trail in exchange for a new access route to its Kahikinui Forest Reserve and Na Kula Natural Area Reserve.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources in January ordered an environmental review and an archaeological survey of lands before considering the proposed land exchange.
There was no response Wednesday to a request to the Department of Land and Natural Resources for an update on the survey or possible impacts of the jury's verdict.
Deputy Attorney General William Wynhoff, who represented the state in the lawsuit, told 2nd Circuit Court Judge Joe Cardoza that he would draft new terms and boundaries in light of the verdict that will be subject to review by all parties.
"That's an appropriate starting point in terms of the next thing that needs to occur," Cardoza said.
While this trial focused on establishing ownership of the trail, a second and final phase, which Pierce said he hopes will commence within the next six months, will address the public's right to use the trail.
Pierce said PATH has filed a claim requesting damages for the loss of use by the public as a result of a lack of access.
Officials with Haleakala Ranch, the oldest and largest family-owned cattle ranch on Maui, sat quietly behind attorney Michael Gibson as the jury handed down its verdict but left promptly afterward.
"We would like to thank the jurors who sacrificed so much of their time for this complex and lengthy trial," Haleakala Ranch President Don Young said in a statement issued after the verdict. "We respect their verdict but are disappointed in the outcome."
Young said the company will carefully evaluate the judgment and "all available options including the possibility of an appeal."
"We believe all landowners in Hawaii should be concerned about the potential impact of this verdict and the risk of other claims arising from the Highways Act of 1892," Young said.
The 125-year-old Maui ranch owns nearly 30,000 acres Upcountry.
For now, PATH and its more than 300 members are celebrating the verdict as "monumental and ground-breaking," group members said.
"The court victory today should be celebrated by anyone who wants to recognize, preserve and protect Hawaii's unique and rich cultural past, including Hawaii's historical trails," PATH Founder and Executive Director David Brown said.
The final phase of the trial will determine remaining issues in the case, namely historic preservation of Haleakala Trail and securing "meaningful public access," Brown said.
"We hope the state is motivated to work on this issue because this is such an important, historic trail and would have such great benefit if it were open to the public as it was in the old days," Pierce said.
A state Senate bill proposing amendments to the Highways Act of 1892 that could have potentially nullified PATH's lawsuit against Haleakala Ranch appears to have died this session. It was referred but did not make it out of the House Finance Committee, according to an online log of lawmakers' action on the bill.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at email@example.com.