There is both a delicious irony and the core of a public policy issue that needs resolution much more than ever in the dustup over Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg erecting a rock wall in front of his 700-acre oceanfront property at 7480 Koolau Road in Kilauea.
If I were someone given to shameless puns, I’d observe that this is a case of Zuckerberg stonewalling the entire community, ensuring a continually rocky relationship with his neighbors, and I would advise that he cement a much better bond with local people if he only cared to do so. Which, apparently, he does not.
The controversy over the rock wall itself verges on a non-starter. The wall is not, in fact, much higher than the earth berm in front of which it’s being built and the view of the ocean from Koolau Road won’t be much different post-wall than it is now. Some people on Koolau Road have tried to make an issue of the wall. This is squandering an opportunity.
There is, however, a magnificent irony in Zuckerberg’s approach to the community in which he wants to create, at least, a mega-million dollar vacation retreat, even if he only intends to spend a couple of weeks a year here. Zuckerberg has tried to impose — and largely succeeded, so far, in imposing — a veil of secrecy over his Kauai plans so extensive it would challenge even WikiLeaks. It isn’t even possible to find his name among ownership documents for the property.
Zuckerberg’s land joins two parcels — including one with the infamous history of having once been owned by Jimmy Pflueger, the former car dealer who pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment in the deaths of seven people in the Kaloko Dam collapse in 2006. The combined property is above two legendary Kauai beaches — Ka‘aka‘anui (also known as Larsens) and Pilaa.
So far in his Kauai dealings, Zuckerberg has gone to remarkable lengths keep everything he is doing secret — exactly as he has done at a residence he owns in San Francisco. He requires anyone — no matter how small the role — who works for him to sign an agreement never to even utter Zuckerberg’s name. His security guards have taken to stopping, challenging and, in some cases, intimidating people walking on the trail into Larsens if they step onto Zuckerberg’s land by even a few feet.
To the community, Zuckerberg is saying, effectively, that he does not owe nor will he provide an explanation for his plans, and neither will he seek community input on such things as, for example, creating at least an easement for beach access. If he’s not going to construct affordable housing on his property (which his permitting would apparently allow), he can at least allow people to use the beach they own. It looks as if he’ll continue to refuse to do either of these things.
All of this from a man whose business was built and whose fortune was made on exploiting private information provided by his customers when they sign up for his social media service. Facebook is as brazen as it can get in its drive to make money from selling information from its user and advertising forced upon them.
Facebook hides behind a wall of secrecy about its operations far higher than the rock version Zuckerberg is building in Kilauea. In its fine print privacy policies, Facebook either forces users to find — often no easy task — categories of personal information that must be held private by Facebook or simply steamrolls customers and does anything it can to monetize the details of their private lives. “Opt-in” is a concept unknown to Facebook.
But now to the real policy question that underlies this controversy, and it has nothing to do with a wall.
As things stand, the law is on the side of wealthy private landowners who want to deny access to public beaches to the public. It’s not just Mark Zuckerberg, though the size of his land holdings make him perhaps the most egregious offender on the island.
For example, if you drive along the road above Kauapea Beach — also known as Secret Beach — you pass a long line of large private estates of the mega-wealthy, most of whom are not Kauai residents. Not a single beach access point can be found along the entire length of that road. Worse still, it is only typical of the approach we as a community have allowed wealthy part-time residents to take.
The county and the state should extract from such landowners enforceable commitments to create at least narrow paths from roads — with legal parking — to beaches. Rich landowners in Malibu, Calif., have gotten around guarantees of access by getting officials to post no parking signs in entire neighborhoods to thwart beachgoers. In Princeville, although there is nominal public access to the beach next to the St. Regis Hotel and Queen’s Bath, there is parking for only about a dozen vehicles. The objective is clear: Make it as hard as possible for the public to use public beaches.
Granted, theoretical easements already exist on some of this land, but exactly where they are is often elusive and forcing landowners to honor them has been a fruitless endeavor — not that the state and county have tried very hard.
We need far better combination of statutes and ordinances to require such easements and, if necessary, impose them on existing properties. It’s a small step toward, at the very least, a nod toward equity.
It probably won’t happen any time soon, but it should, and our County Council must at least explore this problem and try to find a way to fix it.
Until that happens, here’s a suggestion: Every time you pass 7480 Koolau Road in Kilauea, slow down and take a picture and post it to your Facebook page, along with some sarcastic zinger, to tell Zuckerberg that abusing his stewardship of public beaches as if we are just another batch of Facebook victims is unacceptable.
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.