LIHU‘E — The Kaua‘i County Council approved in a 4-2 vote on Wednesday a resolution urging the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to prioritize public access for disputed land surrounding the derelict Coco Palms Resort after nearly failing to come to a decision for the second time in two weeks.
Deferred from a May 10 council meeting, the resolution focuses on three parcels of board-owned land in Wailua totaling nearly 16 acres and including the island’s century-old coconut grove.
The land has recently become a point of contention in the property’s future, as board Chair Dawn Chang told the council earlier this month that she had received several allegations of land use violations by Utah-based leasee RP21 Coco Palms LLC, including failure to maintain the premises, failure to submit annual reports, failure to pay property taxes and cutting down palm trees without consent.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is conducting an investigation into these claims, after which they will have the discretion to revoke the leases.
Further complicating the matter, the county council floated on May 10 the possibility of acquiring the LLC-owned lands — which house most of the major structures — either by outright purchasing the property or through condemnation and eminent domain. If the DLNR chooses to revoke Coco Palms LLC’s leases, the property’s valuation would likely be significantly reduced.
Representing RP21 Coco Palms LLC, attorney Mauna Kea Trask told the council on Wednesday that the developers strongly oppose what they perceive as county interference in a state agency’s decision-making process.
“We kindly request the county refrain from subtly trying to influence the outcome of what is supposed to be a fair and unbiased process that is governed by state law and administration,” he said.
He continued, saying the community would benefit from private development and maintenance of the properties, and adding that the coconut grove has been maintained by private entities since the time of the Hawaiian kingdom.
“Don’t put your thumbs on the scale,” he added. “Let this process play out.”
Rick Cooper, board member of I Ola Wailuanui — a community group interested in aquiring the property for use as a cultural center — gave testimony on Wednesday in support of the resolution, arguing allegations of land misuse by the LLC should not be overlooked.
“The overt disrespect of those parcels, as we heard recently when the chair of BLNR was here, and the actions that BLNR has had to take against the owners of that parcel, is at play as you look at making unprecedented change in modern history to take control back of those parcels,” he said.
I Ola Wailuanui board member and former county council candidate Fern Holland also spoke in support of the resolution, emphasizing the cultural importance of maintaining the lands.
“We aren’t just talking about preservation of this place — put a gate around it, call it a day. We’re talking about restoring this incredible ancient agricultural system, fixing it, rebuilding, restoring it,” she said, referencing the site’s centuries-old loko i‘a, or fishponds.
“That whole area is special, and should be for the public good,” she continued. “It should be, because of the importance of this entire area, a place that serves the people.”
Following public testimony, final discussion between council members saw a 3-3 split on the matter, with council Member Addison Bulosan excused due to illness.
Opposed by council Members Ross Kagawa, Billy DeCosta and Bernard Carvalho, the three members suggested such a resolution would be an overreach by the council.
“In my nine years, I’ve never introduced resolution telling the state or federal what they should do,” Kagawa said. “I have trouble supporting resolutions doing the same … I just think it’s the BLNR’s job. We already made it clear to the head when she came here that she needs to look into the allegations being made, and I think she got the message loud and clear.”
In support, council Chair Mel Rapozo, council Vice Chair KipuKai Kuali‘i and council Member Felicia Cowden noted that the resolution would only encourage BLNR officials to prioritize public access and use during the permitting process, as opposed to forcing a decision or barring the LLC from reacquiring the lands if their permits were ultimately revoked.
“It could easily be (RP21 Coco Palms LLC) who wants it — they could reapply,” Cowden said. “That allows the state to go, ‘Who is going to do the best job?’ It becomes competitive. It becomes people being able to show their capacity to have the right stewardship.”
Additionally, Rapozo directly responded to Kagawa’s statement, suggesting that the resolution simply states the county’s position on the matter.
“Resolutions have a purpose,” he told Kagawa. “Because in many cases, a wonderful excuse for the state guys for doing something that hurts our county is saying, ‘Well, we never hear from you guys,’ … I agree, though, we shouldn’t be telling them what to do, because we don’t have the authority. But we can urge them to do something that we want them to.”
After what appeared to be failed attempts by Kuali‘i to win over the opposing council members, Rapozo told the audience the council would wait two weeks for Bulosan to return in order to break the looming deadlock.
However, during the final vote, Kagawa appeared to have a sudden change of heart.
“I’m not going through this again,” he told the council members, voting yes on the resolution, breaking the deadlock and allowing it to pass.
Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or email@example.com.
Source: The Garden Island