A bill before the State Legislature may make it harder for new landowners in Hawaiʻi to clear title to their piece of paradise. Proponents of the bill say it would help native Hawaiians preserve ancestral lands. HPR Reporter Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has more.
Land in Hawaiʻi wasn’t always available for private ownership. But once it was, legal protections were put in place to allow descendants to preserve land their native Hawaiian ancestors once cultivated. These lands were awarded under the Kuleana Act of 1850.
“Kuleana land owners they have a real special connection to their land,” says Healani Sonoda-Pale, whose family owns kuleana land on Molokaʻi, “We know the tides, we know the winds, we know what seasons, we know what grows where. And it’s the stories of the land, the moʻolelo of the land is something that we are like the keepers of. So I believe that we deserve protection.”
House Bill 860 would protect kuleana owners from often costly litigation associated with new landowners clearing title to the land through quiet title lawsuits.
“Weʻve been losing our lands for 160 years,” says Sonoda-Pale, “So now Iʻm glad finally that thereʻs some kind of effort to give us additional protections to help us hold onto these lands.
Instead, landowners would be forced to resolve any property disputes with kuleana land owners through mediation. The bill was introduced last year after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg filed quiet title lawsuits for his 700-acre oceanfront estate in Pilaʻa, Kauaʻi. He later withdrew the lawsuits but the bill was kept alive.
Mike Gibson is an attorney with Ashford and Wriston. He’s worked on 50 quiet title and partition cases in the last 40 years, and says none have been resolved with mediation.
“Not a single one,” says Gibson,”That’s not to say that mediation isn’t good. In mediation, if the parties don’t reach an agreement, then they proceed on to litigation in the court or arbitration.”
The bill also requires that quiet title cases filed by the same plaintiff regarding the same area be consolidated. Bill supporters say consolidation would give people with rights to the land more bargaining power as a group in negotiations with landowners.
“By requiring cases to be consolidated where a plaintiff is suing to quiet title to different properties on different parts of the islands that have no common chain of paper title, I don’t know of any reason to do that,” says Gibson.
Sonoda-Pale says the bill strengthens protections for native Hawaiians to hold onto the little land they still have under their control. Kuleana lands account for less than one percent of land in Hawaiʻi.
“We have one of the highest cost of living in the U.S. and very limited amounts of land,” says Sonoda-Pale, “Housing and access to lands is an issue and it’s getting worse for Hawaiians, kanaka maoli, in our own homelands.”
House Bill 860 goes to conference committee this week.