Kakaako Land Co. has claimed ownership of several key roadways that cut across Kakaako since the mid-1980s. On Tuesday, however, a Hawaii Circuit Court judge ruled the private entity never actually owned those roads, many of which have fallen into disrepair.

Instead, it’s the state that actually has claim to those roads, which include parts of Clayton, Waimanu, Cummins, Kawaiahao, Ilaniwai and Queen streets, Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ruled.

Furthermore, under the judge’s decision, Kakaako Land Co. must immediately stop charging for parking and towing vehicles there.

The ruling is the latest in a years-long and high-stakes lawsuit over disputed roads in the urban neighborhood. The legal wrangling has pitted Kakaako Land Co. owners Cedric and Calvert Chun against Hawaii state leaders, the state attorney general’s office and many neighborhood businesses irked by tow trucks that they say routinely patrol the crumbling streets, searching for cars parked in spaces assigned to others.

Cummins Street intersects Queen street during rush hour.
Cummins Street intersects Queen Street in an area where Kakaako Land Co. claims to own the streets and charges monthly rates to park on them. On Tuesday, a judge shot down the company’s ownership claims. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“These guys were ruling these streets with an iron fist. Nobody could complain,” Robert Emami, owner of The Car Store on Kawaiahao, said Tuesday. Other businesses started emailing him after Crabtree’s ruling to express their approval, he said.

“We are really happy and excited we finally got rid of the Chun brothers,” Emami said.

It’s not clear whether Kakaako Land Co. will appeal the decision, however. Cedric Chun said Tuesday that the company and its attorneys were still reviewing the ruling and had no further comment.

Chun has previously said that the combined value of the disputed Kakaako roads is “not nominal.” In 2006, he said, the brothers sold a road in Waikiki — Pau Street — for about $10 million.

Missing Deed Irrelevant

Much of the dispute has centered on a missing deed from over a century ago. In 1903, former landowner Charles Desky dedicated his Kakaako streets to Hawaii’s former territorial government by way of a Senate resolution, but no deed has ever been found for the transfer.

The Chuns then acquired the roads in 1985 via a quitclaim deed from Desky’s granddaughter, Adele Christian, paying her $5,000, according to the court record.

In his decision, Crabtree reasoned that Desky likely intended to transfer the streets to the then-territorial government despite the lack of a deed.

It’s the likely scenario because “If Desky wanted to keep the Streets, it is virtually certain he would have done something with them” in the 20 years before he died, Crabtree wrote. Instead, Desky moved to California after transferring the streets.

Furthermore, if Christian thought she actually had ownership of the streets decades later as Desky’s heir she would have demanded more than $5,000 from the Chun brothers, the judge added.

Desky’s heirs also officially lost ownership of the Kakaako streets under a 1947 amendment to the state’s Highways Act, Crabtree ruled.

Under that amendment, the state automatically takes control of any streets whose owners haven’t exercised ownership over them for five years, according to the ruling. Thus, Christian did not have legal ownership when she deeded the streets to the Chuns in 1985, he wrote.

A Years-Long Saga

Kakaako Land Co. and the Chuns have been facing legal attacks on several fronts as state officials, including House Speaker Scott Saiki, whose district includes parts of Kakaako, aim to wrest control of those roads from them and return it to the city.

Prior to 2010, the city had maintained the KLC-controlled roads as part of its public easement to use them.

However, that year Kakaako Land Co. started charging tenants “at the urging of HCDA” – the state Hawaii Community Development Authority – to help prevent the homeless from taking shelter on those streets, according to Chun and the company’s lawyer, Jonathan Ortiz.

Ilaniwai Street in Kakaako with potholes in foreground.
Ilaniwai Street in Kakaako with potholes in foreground. The city stopped maintaining this and other roads in the neighborhood amid a dispute with Kakaako Land Co. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Once Kakaako Land Co. started charging tenants and towing cars, the city stopped that maintenance. They’ve largely fallen into disrepair ever since.

Crabtree’s decision states that “the question of ownership of the streets as between the state and city has been resolved between those two parties by agreement.” Crabtree adds that he’s not aware of the terms of that agreement.

“This decision finally resolves a long-standing dispute in our community,” Saiki said in a statement Tuesday. “I was confident that the State would be victorious as the defendants have clearly committed fraud against our community. I am thankful to residents and businesses for their patience as we’ve worked to resolve this dispute.”

Read Crabtree’s ruling here:

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