By AUDREY McAVOY
HONOLULU (AP) — A Hawaii Senate committee was scheduled Tuesday to hear a bill that would force landowners into mediation before they are allowed to file lawsuits to acquire small parcels awarded to Hawaiian commoners during mid-19th century land reforms.
The bill was introduced after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in late 2016 filed lawsuits to identify owners of 14 parcels interspersed within a 700-acre (283-hectare) oceanfront estate he owns on Kauai Island. His lawsuits aimed to help him find the parcel owners so he could buy them out.
Critics say these so-called quiet title lawsuits are dispossessing individual Native Hawaiians of the little land still in their control.
The bill would require mediation as a first step, as a way to reduce legal costs for small landowners and to level the playing field for those facing legal fights with wealthy property owners.
Zuckerberg withdrew his lawsuits last year after a public uproar.
The state House passed the legislation last year but senators haven’t considered it until now.
The 14 parcels within Zuckerberg’s estate fall in a category called kuleana lands.
These lands emerged during land reforms that the Kingdom of Hawaii pursued in the 1800s called “the Great Mahele.” Until then, no individuals owned land because it was collectively cared for and used.
The reforms allowed commoners to claim title to land they lived on and farmed, usually about a half-acre (0.2 hectares).
But commoners wound up receiving only a small share of the land that was distributed, about 28,000 acres (11,331 hectares). Millions of acres went to Hawaii’s royal family and the government. In subsequent decades, sugar and pineapple plantations acquired large expanses of property.
King Kamehameha IV sold the 3,000-acre (1,214-hectare) ahupuaa, or traditional Hawaiian land division, where Zuckerberg’s property lies to an American businessman, Charles Titcomb, for $2,600 in 1863, according to the Kilauea Neighborhood Association website.
In 1877, Titcomb sold some of it to English Capt. John Ross and Edward Adams, who established Kilauea Sugar Co., The Garden Island newspaper reported. The sugar plantation, which previously owned Zuckerberg’s land, operated until 1971.
The social media billionaire bought his estate in 2014 for $100 million, Forbes reported.
Many original owners of kuleana lands died without wills. In many cases, ownership today is split among hundreds of descendants, many of whom are unaware of their shares.