Updated at 12:28 p.m., Monday, May 14, 2007
Opposing sides both say their goal is saving Moloka'i
By KEHAULANI CERIZO
Both sides to a heated debate are using the same rhetoric to fight a furious battle that some say will determine the future of Hawai'i.
At issue is much of Molokai's land, more than 60,000 acres owned by the island's largest private landowner, Molokai Ranch. The ranch, which is run by Molokai Properties Ltd., proposes to turn over more than 50,000 acres to the community; develop 658 acres around Laau Point for luxury homes; and renovate the long-closed Kaluakoi Hotel and Golf Course.
Saving Moloka'i, according to ranch plan supporters, will happen through the "controlled development" of Laau Point while setting land aside for preservation and creating jobs with Molokai Properties for Molokai residents.
"You have uncontrolled development that's what's going on right now," said John Sabas, MPL general manager for community affairs. "The Realtors are laughing all the way to the bank."
Saving Moloka'i, according to ranch plan opponents, will keep Hawai'i's most Native Hawaiian island protected from rampant urbanizing growth that Molokai islanders have been warding off while sustaining the subsistence way of life of the island, one where residents rely on resources of land and sea around Laau Point.
Hawaiian rights advocate Walter Ritte said Molokai is becoming a metaphor to all islands of what the future of Hawai'i may hold.
"If we lose this fight, there's nothing left to fight for in Hawai'i," he said. "If we win, it says the community gets to decide its future. I don't see anybody as passionate as we are."
'Last ranch development'
Molokai Properties has applied to the state Land Use Commission to have 613 acres of Laau, on the southwest corner of the island, reclassified from agricultural to rural land use to allow development of 200 two-acre residential lots, along with related infrastructure.
The proposal is part of a larger Community-Based Master Land Use Plan for Molokai Ranch that has been endorsed by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Molokai Enterprise Community, a federally funded nonprofit that supports island economic growth.
In exchange for entitlements to develop the rural estates at Laau, MPL has agreed to turn over to the community more than 50,000 acres comprising fee-simple lands and conservation/agricultural easements that would go to the newly formed Molokai Land Trust.
MPL vows that Laau Point will never be a gated community and easements would be established to protect subsistence gathering, with at least $10 million from initial lot sales to go back to the community.
Also, the long-closed Kaluakoi Hotel would be renovated for reopening, which would create more than 100 new jobs for residents, MPL said.
MPL owns 40 percent of the land on Molokai and employs about 140 people. It said the proposal is the "last Ranch development."
Dividing a community
Mention Laau Point on the streets of Molokai and some residents will turn livid. Either they oppose the proposed Molokai Ranch land development and all that comes with it, or they see it as one of the last chances to preserve Molokai's future by reclaiming ranch lands.
It's the undecided residents who are calculated, cautious.
They say they are fearful about how they will be perceived when it comes down to picking sides in a debate that has divided the tight-knit community of nearly 8,000 residents.
Kristin Kaalekahi said she's nervous about saying she hasn't made up her mind – that's when a "backlash" from other residents occurs.
"I'm still not sure because I can see where people stand who are against the development, and yet it seems like there are benefits," she said. "You want to see both sides ... It's hard to say."
Gerra and Terry Paleka said the choice is a tough one.
"Part of me is for it, part is not," Gerra Paleka said. "If I didn't have a family, I would be fighting alongside people who don't want it. But I have to provide for my family."
Gerra, a father of three, said the plan may help create needed jobs on Moloka'i, and the island is changing regardless of whether the ranch plans are approved.
"Changes going happen. That's just how the world turns," he said.
"Everything is changing, becoming more modernized," Terry added. "There's not much we can do."
Point of connection
Laau Point is steeped in traditional, historical and cultural significance. The makahiki, in ancient times a season of peace, harvest and celebrating the gifts of the land, involved a procession that on Molokai went from the eastern side, during the wehe (opening), to the leeward side, for the pani (closing). The pani occurred at Laau.
"Anytime there is pani, the face, the energy, the essence of each person is at its peak. ... The whole purpose is to ensure that the land would be pono," said Vanda Hanakahi, a Hawaiian cultural expert.
Bones of ancestors are buried at Laau.
"There are many, many burials on the west end," said Hanakahi, a Moloka'i native. "The Hawaiians never, ever chose a place at random. When the kahuna chose Laau as a place of closing, they knew that was the sacred place. The sacredness doesn't change with time."
'They think ownership, not stewardship'
When the plan is for million-dollar "gentlemen's estates" to be developed at Laau, opponents say there will be severe social impacts as well as environmental impacts. They charge that wealthy Laau homeowners will not understand how to care for the vital resources that residents have been working hard to preserve.
"They think ownership, not stewardship. That's the difference between Americanism and Hawaiian culture," said Noland Conjugacion. "No one owns the land; we take care of the land."
Conjugacion works with teachers and students to raise awareness about Laau in an international program called The Tracking Project, designed to connect individuals to the natural world.
Sabas said the concern over buyers in the Laau project is misplaced. It's "not your normal person" who will be moving into the Laau project, he said. The buyers will have to "take a course on shoreline management, almost an indoctrination," Sabas said.
He said it will take "a special person" to commit to the convenants, conditions and restrictions listed in the draft EIS and to be in the deeds including building no higher than 25 feet and committing to tight water use.
The development will end commercial hunting and set aside agricultural easements for community hunting and subsistence gathering. Molokai residents will still have access to the Laau shoreline, Sabas said. There will be Molokai Properties staff monitoring both Laau homeowners and other Molokai residents to make sure the rules are followed.
The plan is a result of a year of consultations involving the Molokai Economic Community and the ranch staff, although opponents said the community meetings were front-loaded to favor the ranch's eventual master plan.
For residents who rely on the resources of Molokai, Laau is "the icebox" for its game and proximity to Penguin Banks, the offshore reef that is one of the best fishing resources in the islands. With limited access across vast pastures and steep sea cliffs, Moloka'i has been well-protected from overfishing that has decimated shorelines on other islands.
"Moloka'i is called 'aina momona, the fat land," said Conjugacion. "We go to the source of Laau to get kala, enenue. Last time it fed 60 people."
Fourth-generation Molokai cowboy and ranch employee Jimmy Duvachelle said the area's resources have already been altered, though.
"I've been on that land. Deer is disappearing; game in the water is disappearing," he said. "The resources are changing out there."
Where's the water
Water is at the center of the ranch plan debate, with all of Molokai designated as a groundwater management area by the State Commission on Water Resource Management.
Sabas said Molokai Properties will respect Native Hawaiian rights to water and will use no more than the 2.5 million gallons per day proposed in the plan, to come from three sources:
Just under 1 million gallons of drinking water daily would come from Kalualohe Well, or Well 17, pumped from the Kualapuu aquifer; 500,000 gpd would come from the ranch's mountain system; and an application would be filed to pull 1 million gpd of brackish water from Kakalahale Well above Kaunakakai.
Molokai now relies on a single 5 mgd aquifer for its drinking water, while the entire island is estimated to have a sustainable yield of 81 mgd, according to the Maui County Department of Water Supply. Drinking water now is drawn from three well sites located relatively close to one another around Kualapuu, and any additional water pulled from existing wells could impact the source.
In an order granting use of Kalualohe Well in 2002, the water commission approved withdrawal of 936,000 gallons a day, with a note that "the sustainable yield of the Kualapuu aquifer system is close to full allocation" and imposing conditions to prevent water waste.
The water available from the ranch's sources will be enough for the development plans, Sabas insisted.
"We'll never go back to the community to ask for more water," he said.
There are doubts whether even Molokai Properties' limits are low enough.
A third-generation farmer, Lynn DeCoite, said water is scarce and development is starting to take priority over agriculture for the water that's available. DeCoite farms more than 200 acres in sweet potatoes at Hoolehua and is the president of the Molokai Homestead Farmers Alliance.
"I have no problem with development," she said. "But you cannot keep developing without water."
DeCoite said that even to use brackish water from the aquifer impacts the overall water source. The brackish source is a "transition" layer of water underlying the freshwater lens that provides Molokai's drinking water.
"To me, brackish water is a major impact," she said. "Water is water, and we only have one aquifer. If you keep pulling water out of the same aquifer, the freshwater lens will go down, and you start to pull the freshwater out with the brackish.
"I don't buy it," DeCoite said.
'The bigger picture'
Laau is becoming the main focus of the overall ranch plan among some residents because it represents the "essence of the people," said Ritte, who led an occupation of Laau Point at Shipwreck Beach late last year to protest the ranch plan. He says it parallels the "bait-and-switch" deal that Captain Cook offered Native Hawaiians: Cook received needed water and provisions and gave Hawaiians two nails rather than the metal tools they coveted.
Sabas and Molokai Enterprise Community President Stacy Crivello said the focus should be turned from Laau to the expanse of land that's to be protected as a trust in the proposal.
Within the more than 50,000 acres to be managed by the Molokai Land Trust, culturally significant sites would be safeguarded, including the burial grounds at Kawa'aloa Bay, the traditional makahiki grounds at Na'iwa, the hula mound at Ka'ana, burial mounds at Kawela and village sites at Kawakiu. The land trust comprises Colette Machado, Richard Cooke III, Cheryl Corbiell, William Akutagawa, Crivello, Clarence Kaopuiki, David Lunney, Davianna McGregor and Edwin Misaki.
"The bigger picture to us is not just 500 acres," Sabas said, noting that he fought a five-star hotel proposal for Kaiaka, a rocky promontory on one end of Papohaku Beach that includes a heiau site.
The irony is that Ritte had supported the Kaiaka hotel proposal because the developers offered support for Molokai community programs.
"Kaiaka is going to the land trust," Sabas said. "People have died fighting to save these lands. That it will return to the land trust means a lot to me."
Plan change/change plan
With the public comment period for the draft EIS closed in February, MPL must address the concerns in a final EIS to be submitted to the Land Use Commission. If the EIS is accepted, MPL must apply to the county to have its community plan included in the Molokai Master Plan before returning to the commission for reclassification of the Laau lands from agricultural to rural use.
Sabas said that the MPL will most likely sell the ranch if this plan does not go through and another developer will end up taking over the thousands of acres that could be given to the land trust.
"People look from the outside and say, 'What is wrong with these people? This sounds like a good deal for the people of Molokai' " Sabas said. "For some on Molokai, there is no good deal. There is no status quo other than change itself."
But Ritte says the fatalistic mentality that this plan is the best Molokai residents can get is what other islands have already suffered.
"Other islands are more fatalistic," he said. "See, people feel that they have absolutely no control of their future. What we are doing hits a chord with the outside. Because it's happening to them.
. . . For the people who used to live in Makena, it hits a chord."
Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Making use of assets
The Community-Based Master Land Use Plan for Molokai Ranch is the latest in a series of efforts by Molokai Ranch to make use of its assets, 64,000 acres in central and west Molokai.
Who: Molokai Ranch is a dba for Molokai Properties Ltd., which is owned by Singapore-based BIL International Ltd., a billion-dollar international investment group that also has 600 acres in Fiji. The Fiji assets include Denarau Island Resort, the largest, most prestigious resort in Fiji; a working commercial retail project at Port Denarau; and marina and residential developments.
BIL also owns Thistle Hotels Group in the United Kingdom, and has divisions in the Virgin Islands, Australia and New Zealand.
BIL, a subsidiary of the Hong Kong corporation Guoco Group, is ultimately owned by Malaysian billionaire Tan Sri Quek Leng Chan.
What: The master plan would reconfigure ownership and management of all of the ranch lands. Major components of the plan:
623 acres to be reclassified from agriculture or conservation to rural for the Laau Point rural-residential project. The subdivision would provide 200 lots of 1.5 to 2 acres.
252 acres along the coastline at Laau to be reclassified from agriculture to conservation to be designated a subsistence fishing zone.
26,200 acres, including pastures from Hale O Lono to Palaau on the south to Moomomi and Ilio Point on the north, to be designated cultural and natural resources and turned over to a Molokai Community Development Corp. to manage.
24,950 acres, around Maunaloa and Kaluakoi, mauka of Kalamaula and mauka of Kaunakakai, to be placed under agriculture or conservation easements enforceable by the Molokai Land Trust.
1,100 acres around Kaunakakai to be conveyed to the Molokai Community Development Corp. for future housing development on Molokai.
Create and endow the Molokai Land Trust and Molokai Community Development Corp. to manage and protect the lands designated cultural and natural resources, and to develop lands proposed for future residential use.
200 acres around Kualapuu and Maunaloa towns for future housing projects.
Renovate and reopen the Kaluakoi Hotel and restore the Kaluakoi Golf Course.
Revenues from sales of Laau Point rural-residential lots will cover costs of $30 million
for renovation of hotel, $10 million endowment to the Community Development Corp.