Suit filed against Morita, county

LIHUE — Hanalei resident Michael Sheehan is suing Hawaii Public Utilities Commission Chair Hermina Morita and her husband for damaging his property and polluting the Hanalei River, as well as the County of Kauai for conspiring to cover up the couple’s illegal activity.

“There’s just been a plethora of ridiculous un-enforced violations of law and I’m tired of it,” Sheehan said.

The nine-page civil complaint was filed July 15 in 5th Circuit Court by Sheehan’s Honolulu-based attorney Richard E. Wilson. It includes multiple counts, including nuisance, negligence, gross negligence, violations of Hawaii Revised Statutes and civil conspiracy.

The suit is the latest is a controversy surrounding Morita’s now-vacant Taro Patch Hale bed and breakfast, located on a 3.18-acre parcel within the State Land Use Conservation District Protective Subzone, at the end of Ohiki Road, on Kauai’s North Shore.

In May, the Department of Land and Natural Resources fined Morita and her husband Lance Laney $31,000 for building and operating the Hanalei getaway on protected lands without permission or proper permits, and ordered them to tear down existing structures.

In his complaint, Sheehan alleges that the couple’s building activities — clearing vegetation, grubbing and modifying the flow of the river — have adversely affected his property about five miles downriver of Morita’s, causing it to flood periodically.

“Morita/Laney’s conduct … was so egregious, extreme and illegal, that it rises to a level of gross negligence,” the complaint reads.

Following Hurricane Iniki in 1992, the landowners received approval to reconstruct one non-conforming single-family residence. However, the DLNR has said aerial and site photographs later showed several unapproved structures.

“Morita/Laney knew or should have known that their illegal and unpermitted actions would adversely affect the flow and course of the Hanalei River and river waters which would harm Plaintiff,” Sheehan’s complaint states. “They likewise knew or should have known that their illegal and unpermitted activities would release leachate (consisting of carcinogenic heavy metals and other pollutants) into the Hanalei River which would harm Plaintiff.”

Attempts to contact Morita and Laney were unsuccessful.

In an email to The Garden Island May 1, however, Laney called Sheehan’s account of the breach “twisted.”

“No facts, nothing that would prove this breach was manmade, much less caused by us,” he wrote. “In fact, every study that was conducted by the state and their accredited professionals proved that this breach was in fact natural.”

As for the county, Sheehan says it knew about the illegal activity — as well as that the pollutants posed a threat — but did nothing to stop it.

“They have chosen not to enforce existing county rules,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s going to take a lawsuit to get the county to do what it should.”

The plaintiff also alleges that one or more unidentified defendants working for the county conspired with Morita and Laney and “agreed to look the other way.”

“Because of her political connections and friendships with various Doe Defendants County employees, Morita/Laney and these Doe Defendant County employees had a meeting of the minds not to enforce the law prohibiting her and her husband from engaging in their illegal and unpermitted actions,” the complaint reads.

The county declined to comment other than to say it had not been served with Sheehan’s complaint as of Monday.

Sheehan said he is going to do his best to have the court order certain agencies to enforce the laws they currently aren’t. 

“Time is up, that’s all,” he said. “The environment can’t wait any longer.” 

Morita was chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee from 1999 until 2011, when Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed her as PUC chair. She is the first-ever female chair of the PUC.

In addition to the fines and cottage removal, Morita and Laney were required to submit an After-the-Fact Conservation District Use Application to obtain approval for the large garage on their parcel within 90 days. Violation fines were to be paid within 90 days of the DLNR’s enforcement action on May 23, with structures slated for removal within 120.

Taro Patch Hale’s website, www.hanaleivalley.kauaistyle.com, has been shut down, with the words “Business is no longer in operation.”

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Chris D’Angelo can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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