Not sure if you heard, but billionaire Larry Ellison plans to buy Lanai, the sixth largest of the eight Hawaiian isles.
The news was hard to miss, and was more quirk than concern for national media, but the question here is: Now what?
It would seem that there should be broad policy issues related to the private sale of a 140-square-mile island that includes two resorts and claims more than 3,000 residents.
But aside from the bombastic nature of the land sale the implications of the maneuver for most people are rather mundane.
At this point, the new owner hasn’t announced any plans for the Pineapple Island that has caused any concern from the state.
And until the sale is final, it’s too soon to know whether the purchase will impact the assessed value of the island, which could influence tax rates in Maui County should Ellison get the island for a pittance.
The sale price has been estimated between $500 million and $600 million. But the total assessed value of Lanai is $635 million, according to Maui County. And only about half of that — $312 million — is attributed to the property that Ellison is buying from billionaire David Murdock’s Castle & Cooke, which owns 97 percent of the island.
The remainder of Lanai’s assessed value comes from the island’s other 1,005 taxable parcels.
While State Senate President Shan Tsutsui has called on Gov. Neil Abercrombie to block the sale and claim the land for Hawaii, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said that’s just “not feasible.”
“The taking of private property by the state can only be done via a condemnation action, which requires a specific and proper public purpose,” Press Secretary Donalyn Dela Cruz said in an email Thursday afternoon.
She said the governor is planning to respond to Tsutsui’s letter. He also wants to meet with Ellison to discuss the future of Lanai, although no meetings have been scheduled.
Tsutsui was unavailable for comment Thursday, a Senate spokesperson said.
Lanai residents say Murdock’s plane is on the ground, and rumor has it Ellison is on his way. Speculation is that there might even be a community meeting.
State Sen. Kalani English, whose district includes Lanai, is the only Hawaii official who purports to have had contact with Ellison’s people. In a press release sent out Thursday, English said he believes Ellison understands the importance of maintaining Lanai’s “cultural and conservational values.”
“It is my hope that this new ownership is one which works with the community to foster a healthy and vibrant Lana’i,” English said.
He also told the Associated Press that Ellison has no plans to pursue Big Wind, the renewable energy project that has riled many residents of Lanai and neighboring Molokai. This is a somewhat misleading promise considering Murdock has retained his right to build a 200-megawatt wind farm on Lanai and ship the electricity to Oahu using an undersea cable.
The only true hurdle that exists before a sale is final — and this assumes nothing happens between Murdock and Ellison that would sour the deal — is more of a speed bump.
Murdock must get permission from the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission to transfer the ownership of his island utilities to Ellison, something PUC officials say is relatively simple.
Castle and Cooke owns three regulated utilities on Lanai, including Manele Water, Lanai Transportation and Lanai Water. For the PUC to approve the transfer, Murdock and Ellison must prove that the utilities will continue to be operated and maintained in the public’s interest.
According to documentation filed with the PUC, the utilities mainly serve the assets Ellison will be buying from Murdock, such as the hotels and golf courses.
Those documents also say Ellison doesn’t plan to change personnel or adjust rates, and “will continue to provide safe, adequate and reliable service in fulfillment of their regulatory obligations.”
Murdock and Ellison are asking for the PUC to give interim approval to the decision by Wednesday. While this is a shorter timeframe than what is typically given, PUC officials say this won’t prohibit people from intervening in the matter.
Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, said the idea that the PUC would make a decision in such short order is “really bizarre.” He said his group, which focuses on environmental issues, hasn’t decided to get involved in the utility transfer yet.
One concern they have is with the water system. He said it can be modernized to fix leaks and possibly include a hyrdopower component to generate electricity that can be used on the island.
But Curtis said his main concern involves the future of Big Wind. Even though it’s not a part of the PUC transfer application, the idea that Murdock is retaining his right to develop the project is worrisome.
“You might wonder how you can capture the wind if you don’t own the land, and there’s no explanation about that,” Curtis said. “We’re concerned about really funky relationships, and (with) the wind farm we have to safeguard our interests every step of the way.”