Hawaiians claim ownership of property at iconic hotel site

WAILUA — With a royal land patent in his hand, Noa Mau-Espirito said he walked into the Coco Palms last spring to make claim of the property.

Almost a year later, Mau-Espirito, who says he is a descendant of King Kaumualii, and a group of about 25 of his formerly homeless family members, continue to live on 17 acres of land in Wailua on Coco Palms property.

He says they are not trespassers.

“We’re landowners. We have title to the land. We’re not camping,” Mau-Espirito said. “Our goal is to get all the families who have royal patents in Wailua back on their land.”

The 25-year-old said he was inspired to occupy the land after meeting with families in similar situations.

“In my eyes, if I can make it, everybody can make it,” he said. “If I can take back my family’s royal patent land from Coco Palms, anybody’s family can.”

Mau-Espirito and his cousin, Kamuela Kapule O Kamehameha, say they have a royal patent called Palapala Sila Nui, which they say gives their family the rights to the land in perpetuity.

“Because my bloodline goes straight to Kaumualii, because Kamu’s bloodline goes straight to Kapule, we have vested rights and vested interests in this land that nobody can take away from us,” Mau-Espirito said. “Once a royal patent is made, it’s in that family’s name forever. All the kids in that bloodline will be able to come on this land.”

Representatives of Coco Palms Hui, Inc. disagree.

“As the demolition work nears completion at Coco Palms, we have been working with neighbors, community members, the County and Kauai Police Department to stem the tide of illicit activity being carried out by squatters within and adjacent to the property,” said Tyler Greene, co-owner of Coco Palms Hui, in a statement. “As we move into the construction phase of the resort, we want to make sure that our neighbors’ health and safety concerns are addressed. We understand that over the years as the property lay dormant, certain individuals have taken the initiative to try and set up shop.”

The statement continues: “It is hoped that a smooth transition can take place so that entities currently on the property will cease their illegal operations and realize that there is no place for their activity on the property, within the neighborhoods, or for that matter, on Kauai. We feel that Coco Palms will support healthy and vibrant activity for both the residents and visitors and hope the community feels the same way.”

Greene and his partner, Chad Waters, have been trying to restore the Coco Palms since 2012. The resort closed in 1992 after Hurricane Iniki.

During public hearings on the Coco Palms restoration project, and decades prior as it sat shuttered, no one claimed land ownership.

The $3.5 million selective demolition process began in June. Demolition included tearing out the drywall, making mechanical and electrical repairs, clearing out the Lotus Restaurant and elevating the bungalow buildings so they adhere to Federal Emergency Management standards.

By spring, crews are expected to start Phase II, renovation and reconstruction, of Coco Palms.

The property will boast 350 rooms, 12,000 square feet of retail space, three restaurants, leisure areas and a four-acre cultural center.

Since taking up residence on the property, Kapule O Kamehameha and Noa Mau-Espirito said their group has been farming, fishing and clearing brush.

“We’re trying to open up the land to live self-sustainably: grow our own food, raise our own food,” Mau-Espirito said. “Us living here — that’s all my aunties, uncles and cousins. All these Hawaiian families living with me were homeless on the streets. I gave them a place to stay.”

Mau-Espirito, a 2009 Kapaa High School graduate, said drugs and alcohol are forbidden on the premises.

“I’m real big on rubbish and cigarette butts and no firearms,” he said. “When the cops come, I tell them that they have to talk to me outside or take your guns off.”

The group encountered Kauai police on three or four occasions, Mau-Espirito said, with the latest to occur on March 11.

“Anybody who retains jurisdiction over this land matter and tries to apprehend any of family in these lands will be facing war crimes,” he said.

The most recent trespass complaints at Coco Palms were reported to KPD on Feb. 11 and March 11, said Sarah Blane, county spokeswoman.

Kapule O Kamehameha, a descendant of Deborah Kapule, says he owns five acres of the property. He says they won’t leave the property and he wants to go to court.

“This is a civil matter,” he said.

Justin Kollar, prosecuting attorney, said his office is aware of the situation and is working with police to monitor it.

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TGI reporter Jenna Carpenter contributed to this story

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