KAPAA, Kauai — Authorities have not intervened in the ongoing occupation of Kauai’s famed Coco Palms resort, but the number of people who remain there in defiance of a court order had dwindled Thursday night.
Four days after a judge-ordered property eviction went into effect for two encampment leaders, about a dozen Native Hawaiians claiming ancestral ties to the land continued to live on the property while farming taro, keeping watch over ancient burials and hosting Hawaiian language classes.
The State Sheriff Division is the entity that is responsible for responding to a violation of a court order, and Hawaii Department of Public Safety spokesperson Toni Schwartz said Wednesday that the division has received an official request for assistance from the property owner’s representative.
“The Sheriffs will work with the property owner, (Kauai Police Department) and the occupants towards a resolution to this matter,” Schwartz said in an email. “For safety and security reasons, we are not at this time, free to discuss any strategies that may be utilized in any related enforcement action.”
On Thursday evening, an ashen sky periodically squeezed out rain showers as a protester harvested a coconut tree. Seated in a row of folding beach chairs lining the encampment entry gate, five occupiers kept watch for anything coming their way — be it food donations from supporters or a widely anticipated visit from police. More than humidity, the night air held a palpable anxiety.
“I’m not trying to be a hero,” said Ke’ala Lopez, 22, an anthropology student at Columbia University who has been sleeping at the camp since New Year’s Day. “If law enforcement does come, I would like to have a civil conversation with them. I would like to show them documentation of why we are allowed to be here and why we are not under their direction or authority.”
On social media occupiers made requests for supporters to join them in keeping a physical presence on the property. Beyond donations of tents, extension cords and ice, they asked supporters to bring cellphones and cameras to help document any police “action.”
“Sheriffs waiting for there to be little presence to move in, we need as many people as possible to hold space at gates 24/7,” Lopez posted on her Facebook page.
“We’re still here because we’re trying to continue our mission of stewarding the land regardless of what has been happening legally,” Lopez said Thursday. “If the sheriffs come and try to forcibly remove me from being able to do that then that’s a reflection on them. I am a peaceful person.”
At issue is an impassioned battle over land rights at the site of the long-shuttered resort. A judge’s ruling last week confirmed the validity of the special warranty deed to the property which Coco Palms Hui had purchased from an insurance company.
Defendants Noa Mau-Espirito and Kamu “Charles” Hepa employed Hawaiian kingdom law when they fought for their standing as the lineal descendants of the property’s last owners prior to the overthrow of the kingdom.
Judge Michael K. Soong ordered the ejection of the co-defendants from the property effective 6 p.m. last Sunday. Occupiers said Mau-Espirito and Hepa were still at the encampment Thursday night.
The dispute has lasted almost a year, stalling a planned redevelopment of the hotel where Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” was filmed in 1961. Long before the resort popularized torch-lighting ceremonies as a mainstay of Hawaii hospitality, the property was the 19th century home of Kauai’s last queen, Deborah Kapule Kaumuali’i.
Chad Waters and Tyler Greene of the Honolulu-based redevelopment firm Coco Palms Hui say they are committed to reopening the site as the Coco Palms Resort by Hyatt with an estimated $135 million project that will pay tribute to the property’s storied heritage.
The resort has been closed since it was heavily damaged in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki.
“Our commitment to rebuild the Coco Palms resort has never wavered,” Waters told Civil Beat. “All development projects have their own set of unique challenges. We work very hard to resolve all issues in a fair manner.
“We know that when the court is asked to step in that it is going to take much longer than hoped or desired,” he said. “At this point, the Court has heard both sides and they have ruled that exclusive possession belongs to Coco Palms Hui, LLC. The writ was issued and now in the hands of law enforcement.”
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