Editor’s Note: Allan Parachini is Civil Beat’s new Kauai columnist. Allan is a veteran journalist, spending more than 25 years as a reporter for newspapers and wire services, primarily in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. Allan left journalism in 1991 for public relations jobs and moved to Kauai in 2012. A visitor for 20 years, he and his wife have owned a home on the island for 12 years. Among other things, Allan makes furniture that emphasizes Native Hawaiian woods, usually combined with upcycled materials from items like forklift pallets and shipping crates. He’s interested in stories that illustrate, if only in a small way, challenges —political, social and other — the island faces and what events today may imply about Kauai’s future.

WAILUA, Kauai — A multi-agency police task force raided encampments near the former Coco Palms resort on Kauai on Wednesday, ousting at least four people who had moved to the area after a previous police raid on the resort property several weeks ago.

The actions occurred in the Wailua River State Park and on state land adjacent to Coco Palms where Hawaiian sovereignty activists claim they have title to the resort property.

On several occasions, organizers of the occupation said they intended to take over and claim ownership of part of the park, as well. A small core moved to the Wednesday raid site even before a trial concluded with an order evicting squatters from the original Coco Palms site.

In Wedneday’s raid, police and sheriffs deputies escorted four occupiers from unencumbered state land near the resort. At the state park, one woman was removed and another person briefly detained.

It was the latest manifestation of an emerging trend that land ownership experts are starting to see as an example of weaponization of a tactic by people who claim ownership to land all over the state. They assert ownership based on “royal patent” and other Hawaiian Kingdom land law provisions that no longer apply in Hawaii and may not have conferred legal title even when they were in force.

Native Hawaiian activists are trying a new legal tactic in the fight over the iconic Coco Palms resort property. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat

A legendary Wailua resort made famous by Elvis Presley and other celebrities, Coco Palms had long been in decline when when it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Its owners lacked adequate insurance so the property sat abandoned for 25 years.

But in 2014, two Oahu developers, Chad Waters and Tyler Greene, announced plans to revive the resort. It has never been clear whether their company, Greenewaters Group, actually has the resources to complete the project. Dates for the start of demolition of damaged buildings, start of construction and reopening have come and gone.

In late 2016, however, a small group of Native Hawaiian activists occupied the property, claiming ownership under a type of quasi-ownership that no longer exists. Earlier this year, after a trial spread out over more than four weeks, Kauai Judge Michael Soong ruled that the occupiers were on the property illegally and ordered them evicted. Police and sheriff’s deputies cleared the encampment.

The net effect is not so straightforward. As the trial continued, the activist defendants made clear that Coco Palms was just a first example of a tactic they intend more broadly statewide. It relies on filing voluminous, if bogus, legal claims of ownership under Hawaiian Kingdom law.

Occupation leaders Charles Hepa and Noa Mau-Espirito repeatedly described their approach as a test run of a strategy they believe can be used to tie up development in many other locations. And it was not the first time the tactic has been used. Both men and several others tested it first in a dispute over ownership of a single family home lot in Wainiha on Kauai’s North Shore last April.

Four of the occupiers—including Mau-Espirito—were arrested, though charges were later dropped. Throughout the Coco Palms trial, both Mau-Espirito and Hepa said sovereignty activists reject the authority of U.S. and state law and courts in determination of property ownership. They contend that people who can establish they are linear descendants of Hawaiian families that once occupied property still hold title. Mau-Espirito and Hepa have described plans to unleash a flurry of court actions not just on Kauai, but statewide.

“I think it’s always just been a matter of time before big developers would be subjected to this.” — Kauai County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask

One of the people most concerned with emergence of this new tactic is Mauna Kea Trask, county attorney for Kauai, who took the unusual step of calling out the occupiers in public. In a March 7 letter to Hepa and Mau-Espirito, Trask told them their legal strategy relied on the authority of a Native Hawaiian “Court of the Sovereign” that has never existed and whose “chief justice,” Hawaii Island resident Moses Enoka Heanu, is a registered sex offender.

Trask comes from a family of lawyers, but also deep and extensive Hawaiian roots. Trask himself is Native Hawaiian.

“I think what we’re seeing could definitely represent the weaponization of these tactics,” Trask said.

The underlying objective is to call into question title to land that may be developed at every opportunity and drag out legal proceedings, creating a cloud over ownership. Trask said the Wainiha incident may have been a trial run. Coco Palms, he said, was surely a full test.

“I think it’s always just been a matter of time before big developers would be subjected to this,” he said. “It seems like this is a general movement, with many different players.”

Trask said he took the unusual step of issuing a memo the same day he sent his letter to Mau-Espirito and Hepa. The memo went to a wide array of state and county officials.

The memo debunked a number of alleged legal doctrines on which the new tactics rely. Chief among these is the concept of “royal patents” for land that existed in the time of the Hawaiian Kingdom, but, even then, did not confer title. They were the equivalent of a quitclaim deed.

“The legal situation regarding Native Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination is very complex,” the memo read, “and while Native Hawaiian people do enjoy certain state and federal constitutional rights and entitlements separate from the non-native population, they must as a political group nonetheless comply with county, state and federal laws like everyone else.”

Trask branded the royal patent theory as one of a variety of concepts his memo characterizes as “false.” Others are the argument that international war crimes and genocide law can be brought to bear on prospective developers and that title cannot be held to “crown lands.”

The memo also characterizes as “false” the notion that the Hawaiian Kingdom still exists.

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