In the history of the Kaua‘i County Planning Commission, its meeting this past Tuesday to hear a status report on the derelict former Coco Palms Resort in Wailua may rank as one of the most ignominious gatherings it has ever held.
The meeting was a COVID-caused hybrid, with some people actually attending and others listening in on a conference line, so it’s impossible to determine how many people participated.
However, the posted agenda listed 99 members of the public who wanted to testify. Another 21 submitted written testimony.
Everyone who testified — verbally or in writing — advocated for turning Coco Palms, which has stood in constantly-worsening decay since it was devastated by Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992, into a community cultural center or park of some kind. It has been inarguably true for at least five years that this is what the public wants to see happen to the property.
The Planning Commission had set a “status report” on Coco Palms. So, John Pang, a Honolulu lawyer who represents the current owners of the property, appeared.
So did Sean Skanchy, a local employee of Stillwater Equity Partners LLC, the Utah firm that now controls Coco Palms. Stillwater works with another Utah firm, Private Capital Group, which foreclosed on Coco Palms Hui, the supposed Honolulu developer which tried to redevelop the hotel for several years. Appearing by phone was Ron Agor, the long-time project architect.
All seven members of the Planning Commission were present: Glenda Nogami-Streufert, chair; Donna Apisa, vice chair; and Roy Ho, Melvin Chiba, Helen Cox, Francis DeGracia and Lori Otsuka.
First, they listened to a half-dozen people give oral testimony. There was no evidence the commissioners had read any of the written testimony. The few questions they asked suggested they were, as a group, largely ignorant of the history of Coco Palms and how abysmally their predecessors on the commission and throughout county government have handled the entire fiasco relating to the resort.
The tone also made it clear that the commissioners were bored by their task, which should have been to expose the most recent developments — or utter lack therof — in the former resort’s struggle. It’s in foreclosure because Coco Palms Hui essentially defaulted on all of its $22 million in debt.
Then, it was Pang’s, Skanchy’s and Agor’s turn. Skanchy described the ways Stillwater has tried to control weeds on the property and how it has harvested coconuts from 50 trees and how the company “has also provided increased security.” Anyone who drives past Coco Palms would probably question whether it rises to the level of “well-maintained.”
For what it’s worth, I asked a top Kaua‘i Police Department official a few weeks ago if Coco Palms remained a hot spot of drug-selling — a status it has had for many years. The police officer said the problem is little changed.
Skanchy said Stillwater still hasn’t finished eight of 29 building-permit applications it has been working on for more than a year. He said Stillwater has “spent well over $1 million” on architectural and other fees. “It’s our intent to proceed with these plans,” he said. “We feel like we’ve met the requirements.” With a collective straight face, Stillwater’s people said they intend to rebuild Coco Palms.
For his part, Pang said the ongoing foreclosure “will not affect the permit in terms of whoever buys it. It may turn out that the lender bids on it and gets it. Hopefully, it will benefit the next owner, if there is one.”
What little new information the “status report” disclosed was that the concrete in the surviving shells of what were once the hotel’s main buildings is so severely deteriorated that it may be necessary to cut off the framing of all of the third floors.
Not once did the three men even acknowledge community concerns about the blight that Coco Palms has brought on Kaua‘i for more than two decades.
With that, they were pretty much done. The planning commissioners asked a couple of meaningless questions.
Then the commission voted, 7-0, to “receive” the report. That means, essentially, they decided to keep ignoring the situation for some undefined period into the future.
The county is, beyond doubt, in a difficult position with Coco Palms. The county’s power to take over the property through condemnation is virtually nonexistent. It can’t even order the existing structures to be demolished. Even if it could, COVID has public budgets too stressed for that to happen.
There is nothing to stop the commission — or the mayor, for that matter — from appointing a committee to work with the property owner and the community to try to come up with some solution. Maybe the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust, a statewide nonprofit, could purchase Coco Palms. Facetiously, so could Mark Zuckerberg.
Beryl Blaich, a Kilauea community leader who submitted testimony for Tuesday’s hearing, found it all more than a little dispiriting. “It’s certainly been unrealistic to accept that it was going to be rebuilt,” she said a few hours after the hearing.
“So at this point, I feel strongly that we should boldly go for a different vision. Sometimes, it’s a fine line between a vision and a hallucination.”
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public-relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.