LIHUE — District Court Judge Michael Soong ruled in favor of development company Coco Palms Hui on Tuesday and ousted a group that has claimed interest in a plot of land in Wailua for nearly a year.
The Native Hawaiian occupiers have five days — until 6 p.m. Sunday — to leave the land.
There were two issues for the court to decide, Soong said. The first was whether the plaintiffs, Tyler Greene and Chad Waters, had the right to an ejectment action and, secondly, whether the defendants have the right to occupy the property.
A special warranty deed held by the plaintiffs encompasses all of the property except for the state lease, Soong said. The plaintiffs also have a current lease with the state.
“So as for the first issue, the court finds that they have a right to obtain an ejectment action,” Soong said.
There was little reaction in the crowded courtroom to the decision.
During the trial, co-defendants Noa Mau-Espirito and Kamu “Charles” Hepa argued they had a right to be on the land through a Supreme Court ruling that said natives have a right to use land for cultural and religious purposes.
Soong said the occupation of the property does not in this case exercise the native tenants rights outlined in the Supreme Court ruling.
“Those rights are the right to access to enter another person’s property to hunt, gather, exercise traditional religious and cultural practices,” Soong said. “What the defendants are exercising in this case is much more akin to adverse possession of another person’s property.”
During closing arguments, Wayne Nasser, attorney for the plaintiffs, argued his client identified his possession of a warranty deed, title search and report of insurance, and that was sufficient evidence of ownership.
“He also testified that he had a state lease,” Nasser said. “Mr. Greene testified one more thing, that he asked the tenants to leave and they refused.”
Mau-Espirito argued about errors in the title search, asking for the case to be dismissed and for Coco Palms to be ejected.
“They don’t have a clear title to the land,” he said. “Mr. Nasser and Mr. Greene are being held responsible for pillaging Hawaiian lands.”
Hepa argued that a crime was committed 125 years ago.
“This crime was never allowed to come before the seat of justice — yet,” he said.
For Hawaiians, the land is sacred, with ancient hale, a fish pond and a coconut grove. There have been ancient burial plots found on the land, they said in court. All are significant to the cultural and religious practices of the Kanaka Maoli nation.
The hotel was featured in Elvis Presley’s movie “Blue Hawaii,” and hosted many celebrities.
Kauai’s own musical legend Larry Rivera got his start decades ago at Coco Palms, first as a dishwasher, working his way up to become one of Kauai’s premiere entertainers.
“I just want Coco Palms back,” Rivera said as he testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in court.
The hotel has been shuttered since it was damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, laying in waste since then, deteriorating to its current post-apocalyptic state. The matter of ownership has come up during public meetings over the years but no one claimed the land.
There have been several attempts by developers to restore the property, but all have been thwarted for various reasons.
Since 2012, Waters and Greene of Coco Palms Hui have been trying to develop the property, with initial plans to begin phase II of the renovation and reconstruction scheduled for early spring.
The $175 million project will boast about 400 rooms, 12,000 square feet of retail space, three restaurants, leisure areas and a four-acre cultural center.
Nearly a year ago, a group of Native Hawaiian occupiers, fronted by Mau-Espirito and Hepa, moved onto a portion of the property, claiming interest in the land through a royal patent and ancestry.
The day’s proceedings started with Noa Mau-Espirito asking for the case to be rescinded due to an incident on Monday when Greene, accompanied by Dayne Gonsalves, king of the Kingdom of Atooi, came onto the property.
The incident, he said, hindered him and Hepa from filing some paperwork in court because they had to wait for the police to file a report.
“I was sworn it was court orders we have to stay away from each other until the court case is called,” Mau-Espirito said.
The incident, Mau-Espirito said, distracted them from preparing for their final day of court.
Nasser, of Ashton &Wriston LLP, said Greene, accompanied by a group of people, toured the property Monday to figure out where everybody was.
“Apparently, they were first greeted by Mr. Hepa and the group, and then strong words followed,” Nasser said. “I’m not sure you can call it ‘threatening,’ but strong words followed.”
Nasser told the court he wasn’t certain who started the verbal confrontation.
“The fact of the matter is, we are enjoined from essentially doing anything to the land. The land. We’re not enjoined from going on the land,” Nasser said.
In his rebuttal, Mau-Espirito maintained that Greene and Gonzales came to them in a threatening manner and asked for the case to be continued, so they could prepare their closing arguments.
Nasser said he didn’t mind if the case was continued after Greene’s cross-examination and any witness testimony was heard.
During his testimony, Greene said they did not enter the property through the bushes Monday, rather the tennis courts from the main section of the property.
“The gate that you guys have overtaken is not the main entrance and exit to the property,” Greene said.
If there were crimes committed, Soong said that matter would be handled by the police.
“They’re certainly entitled to enter the property that they claim ownership of,” Soong said, continuing the trial, giving them time in the afternoon to work on their closing arguments.
After issuing his ruling, Soong commended Mau-Espirito and Hepa for the work they were doing to preserve the Hawaiian culture and religion. He said he hopes they continue on with their efforts, but in accordance with the law.