Hope lies in buying Molokai Ranch
By Phil Estermann
The decision last week by Molokai Ranch to shut down and lay off its employees has created stress and soul-searching for residents of the island.
People on Moloka'i need to remember that they have lots of friends who live off-island, people who care about them and their island, and who support their efforts to determine their own future.
As a former resident of Moloka'i and friend, I would like to offer my mana'o.
As many of us see it, Moloka'i is the "last Hawaiian island." It is dominated by an active population and civil society that welcomes economic development only if it can be accommodated to the life of the island. Development is welcomed only if it will sustain the good that's already there.
Moloka'i is not trying to ignore the realities of the modern world; rather, it is seeking to adapt to global trends on its own terms. It's one thing to adapt slowly and grudgingly to modern pressures, it's quite another to be overcome by them as we see on other islands.
While the decision to shut down Molokai Ranch will bring hardship to many, it brings opportunity to the island as a whole. Through the coming difficult times it will be important to focus on this opportunity, which should be considered in the light of recent history.
In 1968, Molokai Ranch petitioned the state Land Use Commission to create a resort city on the west end of the island. Within six months and with zero public input, the LUC granted the ranch's request for a development that would increase the island's population from 5,000 to 35,000.
It was unquestionably one of Hawai'i's worst land-use decisions.
Against the advice of its staff and consultants, the LUC created the mammoth Kaluakoi urban district on the arid west end without water, transportation, economic feasibility or marketing plans to support it.
The developers proposed a grandiose scheme that called for building one dwelling unit and two resort units a day for 10 years. The LUC staff observed that the Ranch's proposed schedule would mean building a 100-room hotel every three months, and pointed out that such a development timetable had never taken place in Hawai'i.
The Ranch's plan was a bad idea from the start, and its approval by the LUC resulted in unending dissension within the community.
In the 40 years since that ill-fated decision, Moloka'i residents have waged numerous battles in courts and government forums to exert some control over development on ranch lands and to have a say in the future of their island.
Many of these battles have centered on the defense of water rights and water quality in the island's freshwater aquifer. Battles continue to this day, and only occasionally are residents assisted by responsive state and county officials.
Owners of Molokai Ranch have come and gone, but not before they created division among residents by offering jobs with development schemes too numerous to mention.
Residents who have battled the ranch year after year and grown tired of absentee owners endangering the island have now launched an ambitious initiative to purchase the ranch.
Shutting down the ranch opens a door for the community to heal the divisions of the past and to come together to purchase the ranch and better manage its resources.
We who value Moloka'i for what it represents for Hawai'i, and who respect its residents for giving us another model for the future, should support their efforts to acquire the ranch and bring it under community control.
Phil Estermann was a community organizer on Moloka'i from 1973 to '75. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.