LIHUE — A family-owned water-bottling company in Koloa may have won its 13-year legal battle with the county Planning Commission.
Earlier this month, Fifth Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe handed down a ruling that could force the county to issue zoning and land-use permits to Kauai Springs and its owners, Jim and Denise Satterfield, after fining and forcing the business to shut down in April.
Jim Satterfield said he and his family already have Kauai Springs back up and running and have lost very few clients, despite months of down time. Some of his customers, Satterfield said, even cried when he called to tell them he could once again make their water deliveries.
“The response has been overwhelming,” he said. “This is for the good of the people — bottom line.”
The Satterfields were granted zoning and building permits by the county in 2003, allowing them to bottle and distribute water flowing down a long-defunct irrigation pipeline that originates on Kahili Mountain and carries hundreds of thousands of gallons of drinking water a day through a small parcel of land in Koloa where the Satterfields tap into the pipe.
In her nine-page decision, issued Nov. 1, Watanabe said the amount of water Kauai Springs bottles and distributes does not affect the purity of the water, and if anything has a trivial impact on the maintenance of water in its natural state, an opinion that directly contradicts arguments presented by county attorneys and Native Hawaiian practitioners.
The permits would give Kauai Springs the legal right to bottle about 650 gallons of water a day, a fraction of a percent of the water line’s 270,000-gallon daily output.
But according to Hawaiian rights activists who testified against the Satterfields at public hearings in 2006 and submitted a petition with over a hundred signatures urging the Planning Commission to deny the permit requests, the proposed use of the water would be harmful to their traditional and customary water rights.
The commissioners agreed, and the Kauai Springs zoning and land-use permits remained invalid. The Satterfields contested the decision in court, where they received a favorable ruling from Watanabe in 2007. The county appealed that decision, sending the case to the state court of appeals. Five years later, the appellate court reversed Watanabe, and the Satterfield’s appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the Planning Commission with orders to clarify the 2006 decision.
The commission held further hearings, commissioned a study on the environmental impact of the water-bottling operation and, in 2018, once again denied the Kauai Springs permits. Again the Satterfields appealed, and over a decade later, the case was once again back before Watanabe.
Two weeks after an Oct. 15 hearing, Watanabe handed down a ruling with instructions that the Satterfields were to be issued their requested permits effective retroactively to the date of the Planning Commission’s decision in November 2018.
The stipulation requiring the permits to be backdated is significant because the Planning Department served the Satterfields with a cease-and-desist order earlier this year, followed by a $10,000 fine when they initially refused to shut down Kauai Springs.
The Satterfields are contesting the fine at a commission hearing next year, but Watanabe’s decision will probably render that decision moot, according to the Satterfield’s lawyer, Greg Meyers, who said the ruling should let his clients off the hook for the fine.
It has been nearly two weeks since Watanabe ordered the Planning Commission to issue the permits, but on Tuesday afternoon Jim Satterfield said he still hasn’t heard anything from county officials. It doesn’t appear to concern him one way or the other.
Watanabe ruled on a Friday afternoon, Satterfield said that after his lawyer sent him a copy the next morning, he spent the weekend preparing to get back to business as normal.
Satterfield and his wife called their clients and put the word out online. By Monday morning, he said they had over 100 orders and couldn’t leave the office without returning to find the light blinking on their answering machine.
“And Monday we had a full load,” Jim Satterfield said.
The Satterfields and their sons loaded the Kauai Springs van and set off to deliver water to locations all over the island.
When asked whether he is concerned about operating before official getting the permits, Satterfield said, “We’re trying to get our family back to work.”
Nov. 4 marked the first time Kauai Springs had been operational since the county fined him eight months ago. Satterfield said the layoff, coupled with the legal fees they accumulated in their years-long war of attrition with the county, nearly ruined him financially.
“I was on food stamps and unemployment,” he said. “What else could I do? I was stuck.”
Satterfield’s court battles may be far from over. County attorneys recently filed a motion that could pave the way for an appeal in the future, which could put the Kauai Springs case back in the hands of the court of appeals, according to Meyers. Still, Satterfield said his family and business aren’t giving up.
“It’s not over yet, obviously,” he said. “We’re not going anywhere. And the spring isn’t, either.”
Caleb Loehrer, staff writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.