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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 1:47 p.m., Friday, October 12, 2007

L.A. Times posts its take on Superferry issue

By Tomas Alex Tizon
Los Angeles Times

LIHU'E, Hawai'i — The woman in the sun hat wants to crack someone in the jaw. It's been a bad day. Actually, for Kaiulani Huff, it's been a bad few decades.

She has watched her home, the island of Kaua'i, change from a wild garden of secret places to — in her eyes — an overcrowded amusement park for rich people.

"Welcome to Disneyland," she says while driving around the island. "See the natives. Watch us dance the hula. Clog up our roads. Buy up all the good land. And, please, help yourselves to our beaches!"

Development on Kaua'i has been so unrelenting that Huff's sentiment is widespread among longtime residents. Until recently, it was a quiet simmer. But in August, with the arrival of the Hawaii Superferry, the first interisland car-carrying ferry, the simmering boiled over. Islanders, in the face of U.S. Coast Guard gunboats, formed a floating blockade at the harbor entrance and, after a three-hour stand-off, forced the $85-million ferry to turn back to Honolulu. The protest had turned into a citizen uprising.

The crowd represented a motley army of beach bums and businessmen, lawyers and ex-cops, dopers and doctors, and at least one college instructor — many of whom discovered for the first time they shared the same concerns. How many tourists and resorts and subdivisions can a little island take?

"The population is saying, 'Enough already,'" says Dennis Chun, 57, who, with his surfboard, helped lead the human flotilla.


At the forefront of that protest was Huff, her face covered in war paint, like her Polynesian ancestors going into battle.

This afternoon, she drives around the island's north shore in bumper-to-bumper traffic and ends up in another confrontation. She stops her pickup at what used to be a favorite secluded spot, now part of Ha'ena Beach Park. The lot overflows with cars and the beach swarms with people she doesn't know. At one end, Huff spots an old-timer selling baskets made of coconut leaves. She pulls over to visit.

Within seconds, a couple, cameras dangling, slip into their rental car. The driver backs up, but Huff's truck is blocking the way. The driver tells Huff to move her truck.

"Just cool it, brah," Huff tells him. "This isn't New York. This is Kaua'i. We'll be leaving in a few."

The driver glares at Huff.

When Huff was younger and rowdier, she might have turned on the impatient driver. Instead she tells herself to breathe. She buys three baskets, moves her truck. The couple speeds off.

Huff wanted to ask the couple:

"Is your ''ohana' (extended family) from here? Did your family gather at this white-sand beach for generations, before it became a park, before the dune was paved over, before the signs warning of riptides went up?

"Did your family swim in the warm blue salt water and then race across the road to the cold freshwater pond that formed from the river that flows down from Mount Wai'ale'ale, and then plop down on the sand for hours on end — with no one else around?

"My family did," Huff says.


Huff is 45, a pale-skinned, black-maned "island girl" (her label) and a jack-of-all-trades whose occupations include flight attendant, bank executive, hula dancer and helicopter re-fueler. Making a living on a tiny island often means taking whatever job comes along.

Now Huff spends her time at home, caring for her quadriplegic teenager son (injured in a diving accident), while her husband, a carpenter, supports the family.

They live in a modest home inland of Kapa'a (population 9,472) on the east shore. The house sits among other modest homes inhabited by local people.

She and a couple of friends, Auntie Nani and Auntie Cathy, all grew up on the island. All remember when the only stoplight was in a cane field and the airport was a metal shack.


Geologically, Kaua'i is the oldest and most isolated of the main Hawaiian islands. It is 33 miles long and 25 miles across, and lies farther west, receiving the brunt of the eastern trade winds.

The remote Hawaiian chain consists of eight major islands, plus 124 minor islands, reefs and shoals, strung like a necklace across the Pacific Ocean for more than 1,500 miles. The eight major islands are O'ahu, Maui, Hawai'i ("the Big Island"), Kaua'i, Moloka'i, Lana'i, Kaho'olawe (uninhabited) and Ni'ihau (privately owned).

On Kaua'i, the wind and rain, for more than 5.8 million years, carved mountains more jagged and canyons more cavernous than on the other islands.

By reputation, the people who lived on Kaua'i were scrappier and more independent. Kaua'i was the only island not conquered by Kamehameha the Great (he tried twice) during his 18th-century campaign to unify the islands.


Kaua'i was a sleepy, rural, largely undiscovered place until singer Elvis Presley made it famous in his 1961 movie "Blue Hawaii." After that, each tide brought more outsiders.

When Huff was born a year after the movie, 29,000 people lived here in settlements connected by a single perimeter road.

Now, during parts of the year, almost that many visitors clog the island each day. The tourists share space with 60,000 residents. The main road — a two-lane perimeter highway — has remained largely the same, including more than a dozen one-lane bridges.

Huff picks up her aunties, Puanani Rogers, 68, and Cathy Ham Young, 77. Rogers and Ham Young remember the days before Hawai'i became a state, and each has had run-ins with newcomers. Rogers has tried unsuccessfully for years to establish an island-wide moratorium on development.


Ham Young is in a legal fight with actor Pierce Brosnan, who owns property in Wainiha Valley on the north shore. Brosnan, according to Ham Young, owns several ponds that divert water from her family's generations-old taro farm. Brosnan's attorney says the ponds are legal.

The island roils with stories of the rich buying and closing off easy-access to Kaua'i's prime spots, including long stretches of waterfront. Many of the old dirt roads and foot trails leading to beaches no longer exist or have been legally blocked by new landowners.

All along Kaua'i's east shore, Huff points out beaches where she used to play and swim. "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs hang between swaying palm trees.

All three women lament the predicament of residents who can no longer afford to live here because wealthy transplants have priced them out of the market. According to a county assessment, the median household income of $56,300 can buy a house valued at $183,100. The median price for a single-family home on Kauai has risen to more than $530,000.

"That's why our kids and grandkids have to leave," Rogers says.

On the island's south side, near Lihu'e, big-box stores such as Costco, Home Depot and Big K-Mart have taken over immense swaths of land. Wal-Mart built on the other end of town.

On the west side, mini-cities of condos and houses have replaced small farms. Land still zoned for agriculture has been taken over by multi-acre estates and boutique ranches.

Across the island, more than a dozen major construction projects, totaling 4,500 residential units, are under way. Plans over the next two decades would add another 12,000 homes and condos; the population is projected to grow to more than 85,000 by 2025.

"Whenever something from the outside comes here, something on the island dies," says Mikala Shofner, 38, who helps run the local boys and girls club.


All the percolating resentment, from all corners of the island, seemed to coalesce with the coming of the Superferry.

It was a natural enough idea for the chain of islands: a high-speed ferry to transport people and their cars from O'ahu to the outer islands and back at affordable fares.

A fisherman could drive his pickup onto the ferry in O'ahu — the ferry's home base — and drive off on Kaua'i three hours later. A lei-maker from Kaua'i could sell the leis on heavily populated O'ahu and its destination city of Honolulu.

Families on Maui could visit relatives in Honolulu without spending a fortune on airfare and rental cars. More residents, especially those with flexible schedules, could commute shore to shore: Work on O'ahu and live, say, on the Big Island.

The Superferry held the potential to transform the way of life in Hawai'i, whose islands have each tried to maintain a separate identity and some autonomy.

For now, the Superferry has only one boat — a state-of-the-art aluminum catamaran, 350 feet long with a cruising speed of 35 knots (about 40 mph) — but another is under construction.

John Garibaldi, CEO of Hawaii Superferry, says he envisions an initial fleet of three or four ships, each capable of carrying 866 passengers and 286 cars per trip.

The plan was to make a daily Honolulu-to-Maui round trip in the morning and Honolulu-to-Kaua'i in the afternoon. A second ferry would add a daily run to the Big Island. The number of trips would increase as more vessels were added.

The ferry made only one successful trip — to Kaua'i — on Aug. 26. The next day, Kaua'i residents blocked the boat, and residents on Maui went to court to keep the ferry away. Activists on the Big Island are considering similar actions.

"Change is a difficult item," says Garibaldi, 54, formerly chief financial officer of Hawaiian Airlines.

His ferry company has powerful allies, among them Gov. Linda Lingle and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai'i . Garibaldi says he believes he also has the support of a silent majority of residents.


On Kaua'i, where opposition has been most visceral, supporters are speaking up. The Kauai Chamber of Commerce put out a tepid statement calling for protesters to obey the law. A few residents have come out swinging.

"The ferry would be the best thing to ever happen to this island," says Jay Trennoche, 62, a retired chiropractor who has lived on Kaua'i for more than four decades. "From what I've seen of the protesters, they're like, 'Now that I'm on this beautiful rock, let's kick the ladder off so no one else can get on."'

Trennoche, who plans to start a hostel, points out that Kaua'i, like the rest of the state, depends on tourism for revenue. According to Kaua'i County, the visitor industry generates one-third of the island's income. Hotels alone provide 14 percent of Kaua'i's employment.

Says Trennoche: "Whether we like outsiders or not — and I personally think they've made a hell-hole of the islands — we need them to keep coming."

Rich Hoeppner, 68, sits on his lanai, listening to the doves outside. None of his windows have glass, and none of his doors have locks. His home, a dodecagon — a circular structure with 12 sides — made of redwood and cedar that he built himself, sits at the edge of the Wailua River Valley, a place where wild pigs still roam.

He is living the retired life he dreamed of during his decades of work as a police officer on the Mainland. Imagine that, he says, an ex-cop living in a house with no locks.

"I know how burglars work," he says. "I guarantee you there are professional burglars on O'ahu who would come here, find houses like mine, load up their trucks and take the next ferry back before anyone realizes their stuff is gone."

Check out all the pickups with surfboards piled high in the bed, unlocked and unsecured.

"That way of life would be gone" with the Superferry, he says.

Chun, one of the surfers in the human blockade, says much of the passion against the Superferry comes from a larger fear that up until now had no focus. The ferry has become that focal point.

Groups have been meeting to plan for the next time the Superferry tries to dock here. Chun, Hoeppner and Huff predict a larger protest the next time around.

At her house, Huff keeps the war paint ready.

Huff frequently evokes Kaua'i's history of rebuffing invaders.

"Never conquered," she says. "Never will be conquered."

True, Kamehameha the Great never subjugated the Kingdom of Kaua'i. But in the end, Kaua'i acquiesced on its own.

The hardy islanders, for all their independence, could not stop the changing times.