LIHUE — A bill to repeal the last existing building ordinance created after Hurricane Iniki is a concern for those wanting the Coco Palms Resort returned to its former glory.
One of them is Larry Rivera, who remembers when he first started working at Coco Palms on Sept. 14, 1951, before he left for a two-year stint in the Army.
The now 84-year-old Rivera found his way back to the Wailua hotel on Dec. 7, 1954, where he launched his career as a musician and performer.
Rivera still meets and greets hotel visitors at the lagoon bridge from Monday through Friday and shares stories about the hotel’s beauty, nearly 21 years after Iniki struck the island and shuttered the iconic hotel.
But he and other residents now worry the proposed bill may open the doors to development that could threaten the hotel’s legacy.
“Coco Palms is an exception, so I beg the council to really think hard before you make a decision,” Rivera said Wednesday during a public hearing on Bill 2502 in front of the Kauai County Council. “Coco Palms is an exception because it supported Kauai and was a huge benefit to the community. Every day people ask me, ‘Larry, will Coco Palms be rebuilt again? I need a job.’ Therefore, Coco Palms should be made an exception to the Iniki ordinance, because Coco Palms was the cultural center of Kauai that was supported by the hotel.”
The proposed changes outlined in Bill 2502 call for the repeal of the last remaining ordinance that allows for “a legally nonconforming structure to be reconstructed to its condition prior to Hurricane Iniki,” according to county documents.
Two other ordinances instituted after Iniki, including an expedited building permit process and a fee exception for hurricane damage repairs, were repealed by the council in 1997.
Several weeks ago, Chad Waters and Tyler Greene, leaders of Hawaii-based investment group Coco Palms Hui, LLC, released plans to purchase the hotel from Coco Palms Ventures, LLC, the previous owners, pull some of the demolition permits filed by Coco Palms Ventures and restore the hotel.
“At this point in time it would be premature to say much beyond the fact that we are hopeful that we can continue to work closely with the County of Kauai and the community at large in an effort to rebuild and restore the beloved Coco Palms Hotel,” Waters wrote in an email Wednesday. “Our desire is to do this in a manner that would be consistent with its traditional and historic place in the visitor industry on the Island of Kauai.”
Public records requests for an updated status of the demolition permits filed by Coco Palms Ventures, LLC in August were not returned by deadline.
Coco Palms Resort tour operator Bob Jasper testified against the bill during the public hearing.
“There are people who would like to see it as a cultural center, but Coco Palms, from the day it opened, was always a cultural center,” Jasper said. “The new group that is looking at it and would like to rebuild it now also wants to do that. They want to operate it just like it operated when Grace and Lyle (Guslander) had it.”
But what’s missing from the discussion, Councilmember JoAnn Yukimura pointed out, are concrete assurances that Coco Palms will be rebuilt, if the last Iniki ordinance isn’t repealed.
“The island has waited for 21 years, so there is some expectancy or desire that it actually happen,” Yukimura said. “People would be adverse to waiting another 21 years.”
Bill 2502 is tentatively scheduled to be heard during the council’s next Planning Committee hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 13.