He was standing alone on the side of the road between Nukolii and the county jail, with his thumb in the air.

I’d known him since we were kids, when crystal methamphetamine and homelessness were remote concepts. Not wanting to get my seat dirty, he offered to sit in the back of my truck. I laughed and told him he was crazy. While my smile was meant to bridge the divide our lives had taken, I think it just came across as condescending.

For the next 15 minutes I listened to his story as we drove. But it’s not mine to repeat. Especially not here.

If it's getting built on Kauai, it's probably a place for tourists to stay, not for residents to live.

If it’s getting built on Kauai, it’s probably a place for tourists to stay, not for residents to live.

Carolyn Coles/Flickr.com

He is another living victim of Kauai’s modern social and political history.

Of a job market that forces servility under the marketing guise of “aloha spirit.”

Of a housing market kept continuously out of reach by mainland or foreign money.

Of the lack of hope that drives Hawaii’s youth into a chemically induced black hole.

And of an island that is still struggling with the effects of a four-decade-old community battle.

If my friend represents our growing crisis on Kauai, then Nukolii — just makai of where I picked him up on the highway — is the place where it all started. Where, for just a moment, it looked like Kauai might find a different path.

The Battle For Kauai

The fight over Nukolii was Kauai’s worst political crisis since statehood. It’s where the seams of our island began to split, where racial tensions were exposed, where political careers were created and crushed, where off-island money began to tip the scales of power and where we finally committed to a future dependent on resort developments.

After the state Land Use Commission quietly upzoned the vacant land at Nukolii to urban in 1974, politically connected investors quickly flipped the property for a 400 percent profit margin in just nine months of ownership.

But our unique dual state and local approval process meant that nothing could be built until the county changed the zoning to resort. When the Planning Department, through the Lihue Development Plan, recommended resort zoning in 1978, it  sparked a wave of protests. Despite the vocal opposition, which was countered by an equally sizable “silent majority” of local construction workers, the County Council voted to approve the plan. 

“The people of Kauai are obviously the victims of a well-organized conspiracy to circumvent their wishes.”

Raucous Council meetings were just the beginning. Twenty percent of the registered voters on Kauai signed a petition for a referendum vote on the decision and the change to resort zoning was overturned by a 2-1 ratio in the 1980 election.

But, because the builder had received building permits the day before the election, construction began.

A judge ruled that since the developer had vested rights in the project (because it had already begun construction), the county couldn’t revoke the permit or downzone the site back to agricultural. And so work continued while activists appealed to the Hawaii Supreme Court.

As recorded in “Land and Power in Hawaii” by George Cooper and Gavan Daws  (which dedicates 66 must-read pages to the topic) the editor of The Garden Island newspaper wrote, “the people of Kauai are obviously the victims of a well-organized conspiracy to circumvent their wishes.”

Meanwhile, 32 citizens were arrested at the site for blocking access. After some more arrests at the Lihue airport, a bomb went off in the mayor’s office. And then a second bomb went off in another county office. This time, as legend goes, the mayor left the damage unrepaired as a political statement against violence.

Five people on a skydiving tour died Monday morning in a plane crash on the south shore of Kauai.

A satellite view of Kauai, a great place to visit but a tough place to live if you’re not rich.

Courtesy: NASA

Finally, after two years of construction at Nukolii, the Hawaii Supreme Court overturned the Kauai Circuit court decision and ordered revocation of the building permits. The project stood partially complete with $50 million in accrued building costs.

Then over the next 18 months the economy tanked, Hurricane Iwa heavily damaged the island, unemployment skyrocketed, sugar entered its unprofitable death throes and the county needed both the property tax revenue and the economic boost from the project.

Understandably, residents who once stood in firm opposition began to come around.

So, a group funded by the developer organized another voter referendum in support of the development. While the County Council rejected the request for a special election on the first referendum (which would’ve ensured that the vote occurred before construction began), it approved it the second time around because the developer was footing the bill.

As The New York Times reported in 1984 on the eve of the election:

“For supporters of the project, the questions involve construction jobs, property development rights, the need for hotels to expand Kauai’s slender tourist trade, and anger at those who refuse to accept growth.

“Opponents see voter decisions being overridden by elected officials, fear spoiling Kauai’s natural beauty with heavy building and tourist throngs and resent imposition of decisions by state officials in Honolulu.”

After an unprecedented amount of campaign spending on the single-issue election (the equivalent of $22 per registered voter in 2016 dollars), the referendum vote overturned the earlier vote by a 16-percentage-point margin and construction was restarted.

More Resort Units To Come

The Kauai Beach Resort now stands alone on a lonely stretch of windward beach. As a friend told me who was involved in the fight opposing the resort, “development always wins.”

It was the last major challenge to the resortification of Kauai.

After 30 years of heading down this road the Kauai Tourism Strategic Plan Update for 2016-2018 clearly states that our island doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle more than 23,000-25,000 tourists per day. Yet, we are already averaging more than 23,000 and have seasonal peaks over 26,000.

And there is no end in sight. Of the 4,693 resort units permitted for construction since 2000 (nearly all of them from before the economic crash in 2007), only about half have been built. This leaves our island with a loaded gun of entitled projects that we can do nothing about.

From now to 2035, one out of every two children born on Kauai may have nowhere to live.

And from the other end of the development spectrum, single-family home construction has fallen precipitously. While Kauai saw an average of 596 new homes built every year from 1970 to 2010, this decade has averaged less than 75 per year. The lack of supply means that home prices continue to climb further out of reach for local residents. At a median price of $600,000, 45 percent of Kauai home sales are to overseas buyers because our tourism-driven economy can’t produce wealth at that scale.

But while nobody is building homes, our population continues to grow. The county projects that the population will increase by 20,000 over the next 20 years, yet we will only produce about half of the necessary homes.

Just to repeat that in different terms — from now to 2035, one out of every two children born on Kauai may have nowhere to live.

While affordable housing crises are occurring around the world, what makes our issue unique is that we are facing equally catastrophic development problems from both ends — too much and too little.

We have too many tourists for our infrastructure to handle, yet thousands of permitted units in the pipeline ready for construction. And we have far too few homes for our residents to live in and not nearly enough being built. So while other municipalities can rely on easing up development restrictions to let the market fix their housing crunch, Kauai doesn’t have that luxury.

The weary eyes of our homeless friends and relatives should be enough to spur us into action.

Yet the story of Nukolii needs be a continuous reminder of how divisive development can be, how both sides can have legitimate arguments, and how this is a battle that has already ripped Kauai apart.

How can we move forward? That’s for my next column.

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