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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 11, 2005

Moloka'i land sold despite protesters

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

KAWELA, Moloka'i — About 200 people protested the auction yesterday of 1,046 acres on Moloka'i by software guru John McAfee but, despite several tense moments, the land was sold.

Advertising such as this, pointing out that the parcels had "excellent development potential," raised concerns among Moloka'i kama'aina.
The nationally advertised auction also brought out about 40 qualified bidders and the entire 12-member Moloka'i police force, plus about as many officers from Maui to help maintain peace.

The land, comprising five separate parcels, sold for $2.85 million to an anonymous buyer, more than double the $1.3 million McAfee paid in July 2003.

One longtime community activist said the protest drew a level of support not seen since opposition in the 1970s to military practice bombing of Kaho'olawe.

"If McAfee wins, all his friends are going to come here and do the same thing. We might as well move out," said Walter Ritte, a hunter and Native Hawaiian community activist.

"This is basically a power struggle for Moloka'i's future. Our future generation is going to pay the price. They aren't going to be able to afford to live here."

A brochure advertising the auction exalts the recreational potential of the five parcels that were for sale. It's still uncertain if state land-use regulations would allow even one home on the beachfront.
Some Moloka'i residents worry that wealthy Mainland investors buying large parts of the rural island will raise property values and taxes so much, families who have lived here for generations won't be able to afford homes. Others were more offended by advertisements that touted the agriculture- and conservation-zoned property near Kawela as having "excellent development potential," though it is uncertain whether even one home would be allowed on beachfront parcels under state land-use regulations.

Josh Pastrana, an employee of Akaku-Maui Community Television, arrived at 6:30 a.m. to help set up tents and tables and to cook chicken on a grill along the highway that runs through McAfee's property. "Basically I'm here for our 'ohana," he said. "They are trying to keep Moloka'i Moloka'i."

The crowd tried to dissuade bidders by displaying signs reading "Developers Go Home," "Auction Cancelled Today" and "Keep Out Speculators." They also led rousing chants in Hawaiian, prayed and took up a pledge to help the Molokai Community Services Council make a bid.

Ten-year Molokai resident Gene Anderson pledged $1,000. "I'm not Hawaiian," he said. "I'm a haole out here. You have to love the land. The place has a special feeling. I just don't have a good feeling about (McAfee)."

McAfee, 60, is the founder of McAfee Associates, which makes anti-virus software for computers. He put down roots on the Friendly Isle a few years ago, and was generally embraced by residents for his contributions to the community, such as donating computers to the local high school and paying for newspaper ads to fight drug abuse.

At the beachfront auction site on McAfee's property, performers played Hawaiian music, though a "Stop the sale" chant from the road 50 yards away could be heard over the musicians. About 20 feet off the beach, a small sailing canoe was anchored to display another sign, which read "Molokai Not for Sale."

Shortly before the 1 p.m. auction, emotions flared when McAfee was asked to address the crowd along the road. As many as a dozen demonstrators pushed through a police line onto the private land, causing a commotion. McAfee was ushered away, but returned soon after Ritte calmed the crowd and asked McAfee to stop the auction.

"I hear you, I appreciate you, but it's too late," said McAfee, who wanted to build a house on the land but said he ran into frustrating permitting hassles that led him to sell the property.

An auctioneer from Alabama-based National Auction Group Inc. warmed up the bidders with the sale of a pair of binoculars to benefit a local school group. McAfee was the winning bidder at $1,800.

Then the serious bidders had their chance in what would be two rounds of bidding. In the first round, the five parcels were offered separately.

Andy Kante, an engineer from Half Moon Bay, Calif., who said he is regular visitor to Hawai'i and wanted to build a home for retirement, submitted the winning bid of $575,000 for a 9-acre beachfront site. All five parcels, three of which included partial fishpond ownership, were eventually sold to separate buyers for a total of $2.5 million.

But under auction rules, any buyer who was willing to pay more for all five parcels together could reopen the bidding. A couple in the tent with paddle No. 47 restarted the auction at $2.6 million, and bid back and fourth against an off-island bidder connected by telephone.

The duel ended shortly with a bid of $2.85 million by the couple. The winners — a woman with a Tommy Bahama-style blouse, and a man with a similar-style aloha shirt and a "Cancun Mexico" cap — declined to be identified or say what their intention was for the property, according to their bodyguard.

Their purchase is expected to be completed and become public record next month.

A disappointed Bill Kapuni was one of the few community residents and groups who tried to save a piece of the land for the people of Moloka'i. His bid of nearly $557,000, which was backed financially by his son-in-law on O'ahu, fell short on a 506-acre upland parcel.

"We just wanted to secure the land for future Moloka'i use," he said.

McAfee did not know the winning bidders, but had said before the auction that he hoped whoever was successful would be acceptable to local residents.

McAfee, who has been described as somewhat of a recluse with a fortune estimated a few years back at $100 million, said he is buying 1,800 acres several miles east in Mapulehu in a deal in escrow for an undisclosed price.

"I want to build a home further away from people," he said.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.