Later this month, the County Council is expected to reopen consideration of entering condemnation proceedings over a narrow strip of land in Lawai that was, for decades, a path to the beach for regular local people who were, rightly, accustomed to being able to access the ocean whenever and however they pleased.
The process of acquiring this strip of land — 6 feet wide and a little less than 60 feet long, which already has a county-owned storm water drainage pipe below it — has been tied up for more than 10 years. It is an agonizingly slow standoff between a succession of Mainland owners of a vacation rental on the site who have been consistently unwilling to sell and a county best described as lethargic.
At the same time, on the opposite side of the island, between Kilauea and Moloaa, a more public drama has been playing out — but one linked inextricably by some of the same principles. In that case, the founder of the Facebook social network, Mark Zuckerberg, was quietly trying to use the courts to force owners of small parcels of land within the 700-acre tract he bought for his own private vacation home to sell their land rights at rock bottom, court-imposed prices.
Even Zuckerberg, whose so-called security staff intimidates people who inadvertently wander onto his estate and tries to keep the property completely closed off, eventually got it that using courts and an arcane legal doctrine called “quiet title” to steamroll locals whose families have owned the land in question for generations was a public relations loser. It would be nice to believe that when he and his wife, physician Priscilla Chan, said it had been a “mistake” to pursue the litigation, they meant it. Only time will tell.
At first glance, the two situations might seem too dissimilar for comparison. But what they have in common is that local people have been stewing for years over what they see as an obvious stacked socioeconomic deck. It’s a card game in which Hawaiians and other locals find themselves priced and shoved out of the marketplace for land and even the ability to walk to the beach, fish, surf, snorkel and swim.
Kauai has seen land and ocean access denial controversies throughout much of its recent history, dating to at least as early as the sugar era. Locals seldom win.
Three forces are at play — sometimes linked, sometimes not. The first one is obvious: people with money. But it is the second force that may be far more consequential: the ponderous and frustrating pace at which county government comes to grips with ocean access issues. Then the third force is little realized: In many situations — and the Lawai beach access is a standard-bearer — local people can’t agree among themselves what the solutions to given situations may be.
In public testimony documents filed late last year when the County Council met to consider the Lawai situation — then punted again to the hearing tentatively scheduled for Feb. 22 — people filing documents raised a red herring in the form of objections to what they said is the $1 million cost of acquiring the path if you include land acquisition and the legal and other fees associated with condemning it. A mystery, however, is that it’s impossible to know who manufactured the $1 million figure. The value of the land is, according to a county appraisal, is only $152,000. Something is fishy about the financial numbers, but it’s only possible to speculate — not know — where they came from.
Local people also attacked what they argue is the comparative inferiority of the small beach in question, which can be accessed anyway by approaching in the surf line and over boulders, along with the dangerous nature of the road. It crawls with visitors and tour buses and has no shoulders or sidewalks. Parking more than two or three cars at the site would also be impossible. A better solution, these testifiers argued, would be for the county to acquire rights to another access point, at the National Tropical Botanical Garden nearby.
The opposition campaign suggests the presence of behind-the-scenes influence. Telling evidence is that several of the emails sent to the County Council by ostensible individuals contain identical language and identical objections.
Even more frustrating to many is that the Kauai County Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund Commission — which is most generally known by its short-form name, Open Space Commission — has been advocating for eminent domain proceedings to secure ownership of the 60-foot path since 2005.
In that period, the commission has held 30 separate open public meetings on the issue and placed the Lawai site on its list of highest priority land acquisition projects seven different times in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2013.
Yet, while the commission is entrusted with the duty to identify land that can be acquired for public use — for which there is a county trust fund that would not require additional budget appropriations — its urgings have been ignored for 12 years now.
People born and/or raised in Lawai recall unfettered access to the so-called Hoban property, another name for the beach pathway land, for all of their lives up until Hurricane Iniki essentially blew down the entire South Shore. As redevelopment evolved and more money came on island from elsewhere, these people started to get squeezed out even more.
What is clear from the evidence in the public record is that many — though clearly not all — community people agree that the little access path in Lawai is something they want. The county has the means to move forward. If it turns out that the cost of the project severely depletes the underlying trust fund, then it’s a mistake that at least people will have had a role in making, and not be locked out.
Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.