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Hawaiian activist group challenges environmental assessment of resort property

The resort property and its surrounding land were the site of important Native Hawaiian cultural, political and religious practices.

HONOLULU (CN) — A Native Hawaiian organization is suing Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources, accusing it of failing to conduct proper environmental assessments for the renewal of permits for the infamous Coco Palms Resort, once known for its Hawaiian-themed weddings and ceremonies, on Kauai.

The complaint filed Friday by I Ola Wailuanui, a community organization looking to restore the land to its precolonial status, alleges that the Board granted the property a blanket exception from typically required environmental impact statements when renewing permits for the state land that the now-dilapidated resort sits on.

The Coco Palm permits, according to the lawsuit, involve public trust ceded lands, intended to benefit the Hawaiian people. The resort and its surrounding land, known as Wailuanuiaho‘āno, were extremely important to Native Hawaiians. The once royal land still holds cultural, religious, and environmental meaning.

“This is why public trust duties are important. They have extra obligations to look at environmental impact on national resources, as well as a fiduciary duty,” plaintiff's Honolulu-based attorney Bianca Isaki said.

I Ola Wailuanui has pushed to purchase the parcels of land that make up Wailuanuiaho‘āno to promote Hawaiian stewardship and develop a public center for education and preservation of Hawaiian cultural practices instead of a resort. Wailuanuiaho‘āno had been a royal residence and birthing site and also contained religious heiau and burial grounds. Two ancient fishponds are still present at the location, as well as Kauai’s oldest coconut grove.

The suit calls for a proper environmental review to be done of the land, which also acts as a habitat for several native endangered waterbirds and other species.

“The Board has failed to consider, protect and advance the public’s rights in a healthful and clean environment at every stage of the planning and decision-making process; to make required findings of the exercise of Kānaka Maoli traditional and customary rights affected by the proposed action, including feasible protections for the exercise of those rights; and to comply with its fiduciary duties by issuing the Coco Palms RPs to Defendant COCO PALMS VENTURES, LLC and exempting them from appropriate levels of environmental review,” the suit states.

The property has a long history of disputed ownership dating back to the 1800s, when it was contested after the death of Kauai’s monarch, who had ceded the island to King Kamehameha I during the unification of the Hawaiian Islands. Following the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late 19th century, the land never returned to Native Hawaiian ownership and was later leased out for resort use.

I Ola Wailuanuia also separately disputes the development of the land with Kauai County, in light of upcoming redevelopment decisions scheduled for January 2023.

“On our side, what we’re saying is that the Board needs to do the environmental review before going ahead and reissuing these permits. To reissue them the way they did it, violates their constitutional obligations,” Isaki said.

The complaint names as defendants the Board of Land and Natural resources and the property's permit holder, Coco Palms Venture, which the complaint alleges is no longer a valid registered business entity in Hawaii.

The Coco Palms Resort, known widely for being the setting of the closing wedding scene in the Elvis Presley film Blue Hawaii, was damaged when Hurricane Iniki blew through Kauai in 1992 and has fallen into disrepair since. Multiple attempts throughout three decades to redevelop the resort have been unsuccessful.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources declined to comment on pending litigation.

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