For months, it’s been a battle of the Big Wind signs on Lanai. Both pro and anti wind farm factions have draped banners on buildings and placed signs in front yards that read, “No Windmills on Lanai!” or “Wind Power – To Keep Lanai Green.”

But now that the island has a new owner, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, most of the pro-wind signs have come down, according to local residents.

“The ones that remain are the ones people have put on their personal property — their homes and fences,” said Butch Gima, president of Lanaians for Sensible Growth, a community advocacy organization that opposes the wind farm. “The public ones have been taken down.”

When the billionaire software developer bought the island last month from David Murdock’s Castle & Cooke, one of the biggest questions was what the sale would mean for the proposed wind farm that has divided the Lanai community and stirred controversy throughout the islands.

State officials and Hawaiian Electric Co. have said the Big Wind project, which also includes a wind farm on Molokai, is crucial to meeting Hawaii’s goals of converting to renewable energy. Castle & Cooke and HECO have worked on the project for more than four years and HECO has invested more than $7 million in project studies that total hundreds of pages.

At the time of the sale, Castle & Cooke announced that it had retained the rights to build the wind farm, but hasn’t disclosed further details of the agreement. And it’s not clear if Ellison could block the project from moving forward if he decides he doesn’t want it.

Carleton Ching, vice president for community and government relations for Castle & Cooke, said he couldn’t comment on the signs or other aspects of this story. A spokesperson for Ellison didn’t return a call for comment.

But Gima, who said he has met with representatives of Ellison, said that removal of the signs reflected Ellison’s lack of interest in the project and desire not to participate in its development.

“What they are saying is that they aren’t going to have any jurisdiction or take any leads on the development of Big Wind,” he said.

Gima said that Castle & Cooke can lease up to 7,000 acres on Lanai for the wind farm, or about 7 percent of the island under an agreement with Ellison. He also said that Ellison had put a sunset date on building the wind farm, which Gima said wasn’t disclosed to him. Ching wouldn’t comment on any end date to the option.

Community Benefits Package Up in the Air

A critical aspect of the wind project is a community benefits package that was negotiated between Castle & Cooke, HECO and local residents. It has been key to attracting community support for the project, particularly among union workers.

But Ellison’s purchase could jeopardize important aspects of the package.

HECO has promised to match Oahu’s electricity rates, which generally are lower than Lanai’s. The company says it will put in place an extensive energy plan that would make the island 100 percent renewable by 2030.

HECO and Castle & Cooke also committed to $2 million in annual contributions to a community development fund, watershed protection and improvements to the water system for 20 years, elements which appear to be unaffected by the sale of the island.

Officials have said that the money for capital improvements and watershed work will produce long-term jobs for local residents. About $1 million, which would be derived from 1 percent of the revenues from the wind farm, would be placed in a Lanai Community Benefits Fund for economic development.

Wind farm opponents say the package is weak but other residents consider it generous. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, which has a variety of jobs on Lanai, has argued it’s important to the economic vitality of the island, which has a population of about 3,000.

HECO says it’s still committed to the benefits package, and that Castle & Cooke is still bound by the agreement.

“The community benefits are an integral part of the term sheet between Hawaiian Electric and Castle and Cooke,” HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg said Monday in an email. “We are committed to following through on the benefits we are to provide and Castle and Cooke is required under the term sheet to follow through on the other items. It will be up to Castle and Cooke to determine how those terms are met as the actual purchase power agreement negotiations are finalized.”

But it’s unclear how Castle & Cooke could guarantee some benefits that it has committed to, unless there is some agreement with Ellison.

The company promised to maintain current employment levels on Lanai — no more lay-offs. But Ellison now owns those resorts, golf courses and utilities that employ many of the island’s workers.

It also assured that there would be continued access to hunting and coastal fishing in the Kaa area that lies below the site of the proposed wind farm. And the package stipulates that residential, commercial and agricultural lessees could purchase the land or property at fair market values. The agreement also includes 5,000 acres for a biofuel project.

Gima said that the sale, and a potential reduction in benefits, could erode union support for the project.

“There are no direct benefits to the (union) should the wind farm happen,” he said. “They’re in limbo. As of today, I think they still support the wind farm, but the rationale and basis for the support doesn’t hold up any more.”

However, William Kennison, union director for Maui County’s ILWU Local 142, said that the union was still behind the wind farm.

Kennison said that many of the benefits would remain in place, but that Castle & Cooke could no longer maintain certain commitments, such as keeping people employed at current levels. But he noted that since Ellison bought the island, there have been about 30 new job postings. He said that the benefits fund would still be a boost to Lanai’s economy.

“The island needs a lot of assistance, a lot of help because I think for many, many years, while it hasn’t been neglected, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said.

Kennison said that he had met with Ellison’s representatives, and while they hadn’t disclosed the new owner’s vision for the island, he felt positive about the sale.

“They asked for input on the island’s needs, what we think the island’s needs are and what’s our vision for Lanai,” he said.

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