When Lanai was a pineapple town being recast as a five-star destination resort, twin plans were born to develop a golf course and an agricultural park.

Lanai locator map

Castle & Cooke, the island’s predominant private landowner during this era of transformation, sought to build an 18-hole golf course to complement its luxury oceanfront hotel. The state Land Use Commission in 1991 granted its petition to reclassify land from rural and agricultural uses to urban uses, paving the way for the construction of the Jack Nicklaus designed Manele Golf Course.

As a condition of the land use reclassification, the commission ordered Castle & Cooke to commit to leasing 100 acres to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture or Maui County for an agricultural park.

Ultimately, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources acquired 100 undeveloped acres on Lanai from Castle & Cooke in July 1994 for $100 a year for a 55-year term. The Board recommended that the DOA develop the site into the first state agricultural park on the 140-square mile island.

But the DOA never took possession of the land and the agricultural park was never built. Staff at the DOA recently indicated that the department “did not have any interest in establishing an agricultural park at the site,” according to minutes from a November BLNR meeting.

Lanai homes Pine trees. 13 april 2017
Lanai’s population of roughly 3,000 residents is composed of primarily Filipino descendants of workers recruited as early as the 1920s to help James Drummond Dole start up what was once the world’s most productive pineapple plantation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Now Maui County — with its newly minted agriculture department — has the chance to take over the lease and finally develop a park where small farmers on Lanai could lease plots to grow food.

The County Council is considering taking over the state’s land lease, after the BLNR last month imposed a 180-day deadline for the county to decide whether or not it wishes to bring the stagnant ag park plan to fruition. The land is now owned by Pulama Lanai, the management company that control’s billionaire tech entrepreneur Larry Ellison’s 98% stake in the island.

“The idea is that we’ll get a chunk of land of our own on Lanai that Larry Ellison won’t have a say in,” said Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson, who lives on Lanai and worked as a farmer before he was elected to public office in 2020.

Taking over the site and transforming it into an ag park, however, would require taxpayer investment.

Maui County Councilman Gabe Johnson was a farmer on Lanai before he was elected to public office in 2020. 

The site is remote, lacks necessary infrastructure and has a limited water supply. The county would need to fence in the property, pave an entry road, install windbreaks, subdivide the land into farm plots and more before it could start leasing acreage to farmers.

If the county decides against taking over the lease, the BLNR plans to terminate its lease and return the land to Pulama Lanai. The opportunity for local government to turn the land into an ag park for farmers would most likely vanish.

The county has until April to make a decision.

Pulama Lanai supports the land lease transfer. But Keiki Pua Dancil, Pulama Lanai’s senior vice president of government affairs and strategic planning, emphasized that many of the terms of the lease are in default. The state, for example, did not meet a deadline that passed many years ago to survey and subdivide the land.

“Because this is such an old lease from 1994, upon assignment the county would be in default on day one,” she told council members. “In addition, in order to be compliant … a significant investment on behalf of the county would be necessary.”

Dancil urged council members to carefully review the lease and consider whether “this burden would be in the best interest of the county and the residents of Lanai.”

Pulama Lanai does not have any plans of its own for the parcel, according to Dancil.

Four Seasons Resort Lanai.
In 2015, Larry Ellison, who owns 98% of Lanai, ordered a $75 million renovation of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, where the cheapest room on a Saturday was advertised for $2,307. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Although there are no state or county agricultural parks on Lanai, Pulama Lanai has a community garden — with vacancy — where Lanai residents can rent a plot to grow food for personal consumption. Leased acreage is also available in a commercial agricultural park owned by the company.

No one on Lanai has recently asked the company for acreage in either park, according to Dancil, who said she thinks there’s sufficient acreage available for lease on Lanai for gardening and farming.

But Johnson said the Lanai farming community is eager for an ag park outside the purview of the company.

“If you think about it from a Lanaian’s perspective, we shop at the company store, we rent our housing from the company, we drive on their roads,” Johnson said. “So it’s nice to have one place where the county has a say in what’s being done, and therefore we as individuals also feel like we have more of a say. Because you can elect county officials but you can’t elect who owns the company.”

If the county chooses to assume the lease, its management would likely fall to the six-month-old Maui Agriculture Department established by voters through a Charter amendment. The fledgling department, which currently has a staff of two, is charged with developing a sustainable regional agricultural system for Maui County, boosting local food security and building economic resiliency by increasing opportunities in the ag sector.

Agriculture Department Deputy Director Weston Yap declined to comment on the potential land acquisition while the county is in the process of transitioning to a new mayoral administration with the upcoming inauguration of Mayor-elect Richard Bissen.

At a County Council meeting on Dec. 2, Negus Manna, president of the Lanai chapter of the Hawaii Farmers Union United, said the organization supports the county acquisition of the lease and announced its own goal to increase the amount of agricultural land available to Lanai farmers.

Established in May 2022, the Lanai chapter of the HFUU has about 20 members, about half of them farmers, Manna told the council.

“This project is critical to the growth and diversification of Lanai’s economy,” said Manna, who grows microgreens and tropical fruit. “For too long the Lanai economy has been almost entirely dependent on a single industry — first the pineapple industry and now luxury tourism.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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