Amid The Rubble, Respect Property Rights And Listen To All The Voices Of Lahaina - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Everyone lost precious belongings and assets when the town burned, but no one should be revictimized because they lack political clout.

How do you tell someone who has just lost almost everything that you’re thinking about taking away the rest?

In the aftermath of the Lahaina fire, it turns out to be alarmingly easy.

Take Gov. Josh Green’s suggestion soon after the Aug. 8 disaster that the state needed a way to prevent speculators from swooping in and buying up land from distraught property owners.

The governor’s immediate inclination to ward off a land grab is understandable, and we’re all hoping that mortgage-paying assistance is on the way for those who need it.

But we also must remember that while the fire scene looks like a single vast wasteland, it’s actually a patchwork of private properties whose owners still have rights — including the right to sell to whoever they want.

  • A Special Commentary Project

Even the oft-heard suggestion that a reimagined Lahaina should prioritize its Native Hawaiian history over catering to tourists is loaded.

Most of the businesses that burned were predicated on the visitor industry, and many of the residents who lost their homes worked at those businesses. Are their owners to be denied the right to rebuild?

It’s no wonder when the Maui County Council called a public hearing Tuesday to take testimony about the concept of developing a “recovery and resiliency” plan, some citizens practically screamed, “Too soon!”

A few voiced fear that there may already be a conspiracy afoot to take away people’s land for the sake of redevelopment. Even the early talk about clearing debris has engendered suspicion.

“Get ready,” said one sobbing woman. “The county will wipe your property away and call it a success.”

The ruins of Lahania town eerily rests calmly as a large wave breaks over Lahaina Harbor breakwall Thursday, Aug. 10, 2023, in Maui. Two days prior, a large, fast-moving wildfire consumed this historical West Maui town. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahania town is a wasteland, but it’s also a patchwork of private properties. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For their part, County Council members are saying the right things.

“The people in West Maui can’t see this meeting … we have to meet them at the level that they’re at,” said council member Tamara Paltin, whose district includes Lahaina.

“Please don’t do things for us — without us,” she said.

Even before the hearing, Maui County Council Chair Alice Lee said it would be the first of many, and that council members plan “extensive, extensive outreach so that we can hear from as many people as possible.”

“We do not want to dictate what the plan will be,” Lee said.

But state Sen. Angus McKelvey, a Lahaina resident whose condo burned, said he understands why people there have “a siege mentality” even as they deal with the loss of homes and jobs.

“There’s this push by the county to shove everybody back to the market economy,” he said.

Some shellshocked fire survivors, he added, may be thinking, “You guys are cooking up big plans for us in Wailuku and Honolulu and D.C.”

Lee told Civil Beat that some planning has to happen sooner rather than later because recovery work is expensive. Incoming aid from the state and federal governments will require amendments to the county’s current budget and present big challenges in putting together its next budget.

“We do not want to dictate what the plan will be.”

Council Chair Alice Lee

Still, she recognized that “We have to take it slow because people are still processing the grief.”

Officials face a delicate balancing act, because the scale of this disaster means collective action must be taken. Infrastructure must be rebuilt — including underground power lines and a more reliable water system, we would expect. The County Council is right to focus on resilience. Whatever rises from the ashes must be more resistant to fire, wind and rising sea level. 

To the fullest extent possible, the people from Lahaina’s past who want to be part of its future must row in the same direction. And those who want out of the canoe deserve our respect as well.

The tourism industry will have its say. So will the Native Hawaiian community. That is appropriate.

But we’re going to be watching out as well for the Lahaina stakeholders who have little political clout. Their property rights and their very livelihoods are at stake.

Read this next:

Beth Fukumoto: Taking Action Is The Best Way To Relieve Anxiety About Climate Change

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

Great comments. But who can you trust right now? It is really a dilemma. State Senator resigns because of a conflict of interest, conveniently runs a personal injury law firm.

hinewt · 1 month ago

How to get properties to go to probate and have court decide the outcome, just wipe out a entire generation or two or three. As diabolical as this may seem it could be plausible; trying to keep residence from leaving, no warnings, certain area left totally unscathed.

hinewt · 1 month ago

That the people of Lahaina have some reservations as to the intentions of their government and the special interests that are their accomplices is healthy."Some shellshocked fire survivors, he added, may be thinking, "You guys are cooking up big plans for us in Wailuku and Honolulu and D.C." Good call. They probably are doing just that.The restoration of Lahaina must be carefully supervised that the interests of the little folks are preserved.

Gordyf · 1 month ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.