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Residents clash with Coco Palms developer at community meeting in Wailua

WAILUA — The developers aiming to restore the once-renowned Coco Palms Resort held a community meeting on Wednesday night that quickly collapsed, as Kaua‘i residents effectively shut down the presentation from the project’s ownership team within minutes.

An estimated 100 people had gathered under the Wailua Houselots Park Pavilion to attend Reef Capital Partners’ 6 p.m. community event, advertised as an “opportunity to meet the Coco Palms Restoration team, learn more about the project, and share your mana‘o.”

Representatives from the Utah-based real estate investment firm say they are on track with plans to rebuild the once-iconic hotel, which has been left in ruins ever since it was ravaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, as a 350-room resort estimated to cost over $300 million.

Reef Capital Partners is the latest developer to attempt to restore the hotel after a string of failed attempts from previous developers.

They took ownership of the property in 2022 and maintain they will complete demolition by the end of the year, commence construction in early 2024, and fully complete the project by the end of 2026.

‘Go back to Utah’

Protests from attendees at the meeting began almost immediately as Shane Peters, a communications adviser for Reef Capital Partners, outlined their plan for the night. He announced the project team would give a brief presentation, and then construction, architectural, and archaeological representatives would break into groups to have smaller discussions with people.

He was interrupted by longtime Kaua‘i resident Bridget Hammerquist, an outspoken advocate against the resort’s development, who asked the team not to “divide and conquer,” and to instead keep everyone as a group for the whole meeting.

“We’d like to stay together and hear what everybody has to say,” she said with support from other residents.

“Let’s just make a short presentation, and then we’re happy to listen to everybody,” Peters replied.

John Day, the chief financial officer of Reef Capital Partners, stepped up to give the opening presentation.

“I think it’s wonderful that people on both sides of the issue turned out tonight to hear an update on the project, and also to ask questions to us and share your thoughts,” he said in his initial remarks.

Day received criticism from the crowd as he provided an overview of Reef Capital, stating the company has grown to 160 employees since starting in 2005. Day, who joined the organization in 2020, emphasized that Reef Capital specializes in projects in “environmentally sensitive areas.”

Soon after those remarks, Day and the other team leaders lost control of the event as outbursts from the crowd erupted.

“Take your money and go back to Utah,” shouted one Kaua‘i resident. “Environmentally sensitive. Come on guy, get real.”

“I don’t even know why we’re here to talk about this,” said another resident.

“Digging up somebody’s iwis and moving it? Is that the kind of sensitivity you’re talking about,” shouted another resident, who stated he was a descendant of Hawaiian royalty.

The property, near the Wailua River, is known for its rich historical and cultural significance. In the 19th century, the resort was home to Kauai’s last queen, Deborah Kapule. It’s also the site of the island’s oldest coconut grove, ancient fishponds and burial sites.

Day stated they would not be digging up any burials, and they are “only restoring the building,” which was followed by more criticism from attendees.

“You’re not the owner. You don’t own the land,” shouted one attendee, stating it belongs to the descendants of Queen Deborah Kapule.

Attorney Mauna Kea Trask, who began representing Reef Capital earlier this year, then tried to provide an overview of the project but could barely be heard through the crowd’s comments, as he stated plans for the coconut grove and a cultural center at the resort.

Some attendees shouted at Trask, who is Native Hawaiian, calling him “a liar” and “a sellout” for being part of the rebuild.

“Shame on you, Trask, for being here,” said one resident.

Four police officers arrived on the scene as tensions between residents and the development team continued to escalate, and the meeting dissolved into people yelling “get out of here” and chants of “no hotel.”

‘Not a successful meeting’

Kaua‘i County Council Chair Mel Rapozo noted that emotions were running high in an interview with The Garden Island at the event.

“Obviously, this was not a successful meeting,” he said. “I think the community’s message was loud and clear. They don’t want the hotel, and it’s unfortunate we didn’t get a chance to hear a plan.”

Rapozo had come to the debate to hear the developer’s plans and noted being “against the dilapidated hotel remaining” at the site.

“Something needs to be done with the project and we had been pretty much misled by the former owners,” said Rapozo, adding he has received “no assurances that the project will move forward.”

“I am not familiar with these owners. But I was very familiar with the last owners and it’s a very difficult thing to rebuild that hotel right now with the existing state and federal regulations. So we’ll see.”

Council member Felicia Cowden was open about her objections to the resort being rebuilt.

“I’m sorry that these (developers) made a difficult investment … And I think that they are likely to lose a whole lot more money if they continue with the development,” she said.

“I think the community has really asked for a park or a cleared site right there. And there’s too much traffic, there’s too many pieces that it would impact.”

Cowden was one of many people at the meeting to raise concerns about staffing shortages, traffic, flooding, and other environmental risks largely due to the resort’s location, which fronts a major highway across from Wailua Beach.

Fern Holland, a member of the nonprofit group I Ola Wailuanui, an organization seeking to preserve the area as a cultural site, criticized Day for not listening to residents and pushing a hotel on a community that does not want one.

“The reality is, none of this (feedback) is shaping and changing your understanding of the future of this property,” said Holland to Day at a smaller debate later that night. “Your understanding is, no matter what, the community is going to get it.”

Hammerquist made a similar statement to The Garden Island, saying the developer failed in an opportunity to listen to residents.

“They’re never going to meet the community’s needs if they don’t hear them. And they shut them down,” she said.

“I don’t think this was a time to try and sell their project. This was a time for them to try and listen to what the community had to say,” she added.

Day, on the other hand, stated several times throughout the night that he talks to more people who are for the hotel than against the project.

One Kaua‘i resident, who declined to state his name for The Garden Island due to fear of backlash from the community, said he was happy about the resort being rebuilt.

“It was embarrassing,” he said of residents’ behavior during the meeting.

“I believe in civil society. I believe that you have the right to be heard,” he added.

The man fondly remembered the Coco Palms Resort, saying he had worked as a photographer for Grace Buscher Guslander.

Guslander, who died in 2000, was the manager of Coco Palms and is credited with transforming the site from a 24-room motel, when it first opened in 1953, into a roughly 400-room resort reported to have hosted celebrities, including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Rita Hayworth.

“I’m just a nostalgic person. I’m very nostalgic,” he said of his reason for wanting the Coco Palms rebuilt.

‘It’s exciting to be able to restore’

Day called the people protesting at the meeting a “vocal minority,” in an interview with The Garden Island at the end of the event, saying he has heard from lots of people who are thrilled that someone is going to finally restore the site.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to give the community all of the updates that we had hoped to give,” he said.

“There were some folks who just decided to kind of shut it down and that’s too bad for the people who came here wanting those updates.”

Day’s main update was that Reef Capital is on track to start demolition by the end of this year, but he couldn’t provide a more precise date. He also said construction would start sometime next year.

“I truthfully view this land as sacred land,” said Day. “I cringe honestly as I look at its current condition, and it’s exciting to be able to restore and rehabilitate this land to what it was.”

Day was also asked about the legality of proceeding with the demolition, given the state has been reportedly investigating alleged land-use violations by Reef Capital for several months.

In April, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) asked for all work to stop at the site after receiving allegations that Reef Capital had failed to maintain the premises, failed to submit annual reports, failed to pay property taxes and cut down palm trees without consent.

Day stated they are able to commence demolition despite the ongoing investigations, as the alleged violations occurred on state-owned conservation land, not the private property where the hotel is located.

“They’re not referring to the private land in front where the demolition is occurring,” he stated. “It’s conservation land where there can’t be any activity, anyway. That has nothing to do with the hotel site.”

AJ McWhorter, a representative for the DLNR, told The Garden Island that a report on the conservation-district violations has not yet been finalized.

But he confirmed the state’s investigation does not prevent Reef Capital from being able to start the demolition and construction of the hotel.

“The hotel, or remnants thereof, are not on state lands, and not inside the conservation district,” said McWhorter in an email response.

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Emma Grunwald, reporter, can be reached 808-652-0638 or egrunwald@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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