John Hill: What People Who Own Land In Lahaina Think About Its Future - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

John Hill

John Hill is the Investigations Editor at Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @johncornellhill.

A rebuilt Lahaina will have to take into account not only societal goals and grand visions but the wishes of many individual owners.

There’s been a lot of talk about what a reborn Lahaina should look like, almost as if it were a blank slate.

But the reality is that individuals, government and other institutions own that land and will invariably have ideas about what to do with it. Somehow, these intentions will have to mesh with government zoning and master planning — and what the community wants — to result in something new.

Given all that, I decided to talk to a few of these individual property owners — past and present — to get their take on what should rise from the ashes of Aug. 8.

My sample was by no means representative. Many landowners did not want to talk, either failing to return my calls or saying they would call back and then ghosting me. Some talked off the record but didn’t want their names used.

This in and of itself is telling. The subject is so raw that many people don’t want to talk about it publicly lest they spark hard feelings amongst their once and hopefully future neighbors.

What does it mean to own land in the United States? In large part, it means that you get to choose what to do with it. But there are limits — hence master plans, zoning, building codes, etc. These things, in theory, are a reflection of larger societal values. Then there’s the fact that, in Hawaii as on the mainland, much of the land was appropriated from original inhabitants who had much different ideas about “ownership.”

It can be tempting to think of Lahaina as a blank slate, but it’s not. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023)

I spoke to Peter Martin, a longtime developer who, among other things, bought up land from the Pioneer Mill sugar plantation.

It would be an understatement to say that Martin has been a controversial figure in West Maui. Without going into all the ins and outs, suffice it to say that he has been accused, rightly or not, of being the spiritual heir of the plantation owners, trampling on Native Hawaiian traditions such as kuleana rights, mismanaging land and promoting “gentleman estates.”

Martin said he had developed 68 affordable homes in Lahaina and sold them to individuals. All but five of them burned down.

He is an unabashed advocate for expansive individual property rights.

Martin — along with his wife, who had just seen the ruined town for the first time after returning from the mainland — attended a community meeting last week and heard a lot of ideas about what should happen in Lahaina. He said that some of them were good, but most he considered unworkable. On a more fundamental level, he questioned why these folks were making plans for other people’s land.

“We’re listening to these people talk about all their plans for the property — not their property — all the rules they wanted,” he said. “It’s absurd, the socialist mentality, they think they own the land. The property owners are the ones that should be involved.”

Beyond questions of health and safety, he said, “what happens on your land should be your kuleana. It should be private property. First, you should be able to rebuild what you had there quickly.”

He called the meeting “very discouraging.”

Of course, land parcels do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on roads, sewer, water, electricity, schools, fire protection and much more. They use community resources. And so the community gets a say. And that’s where the difficult and protracted debates begin.

But Martin, like many others, also complains about the shear sluggishness of government process.

He said he remembered getting a building permit in one day around 1975. He wasn’t sure he was recalling that correctly, but recently ran into a former permitting official who confirmed it.

Now, he said, “if everything goes smoothly it can be a year.”

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization says the median wait for a residential building permit in Lahaina was 111 days.

Martin said the long waits are why some Lahaina residents built structures that never got the proper permitting.

Which brings up another complex question for owners and Maui County that also gets to the balance between individual rights and community and government control.

What to do about “non-conforming uses” — places that were not up to code, either because no zoning law existed when they were built, or they were built to standards since revised or the owner never got a permit at all?

“If they’re very old houses, they could have been built before we had a building code or zoning,” said Cassandra Abdul, executive director of Na Hale O Maui, a community land trust that develops affordable housing.

Na Hale O Maui developed 15 houses in Lahaina and sold them to families making 120% or less of the area median income. All but perhaps one of them were lost in the fire — a third of the organization’s total housing on Maui.

Linemen from Hawaiian Telcom work to repair communication lines along Route 30 on the north side of Lahaina. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Brian Cook owned several properties in Lahaina, including a couple of warehouses and a rental condo. Some survived the fire and others did not.

He also wonders what will happen to those owners who were not up to current code.

“If you complied with the code and you’re got something different now, that’s a real problem,” he said. “Do you have to abide by the new codes? That’s not exactly fair.”

Cook and his wife started coming to the Hawaiian islands 40 years ago. They decided they liked Maui best. Then, after bouncing around various parts of the island, they fell in love with Lahaina and moved there 15 to 20 years ago.

“I hope they rebuild Lahaina exactly like it was — a quaint, cute, fun little town,” he said.

The only change he would make is more affordable housing for people who work in town. That, and building structures — even if they look exactly the same — with materials more resistant to fire.

But despite his ownership of several properties, Cook has not attended meetings and does not expect to have much of a say.

“People with a lot more influence than me will end up making the decision,” he said.

Even talking about the prerogatives of owners ignores the fact that “ownership” can mean different things. Sharen Sylva is grappling with that very question.

She and her husband owned the Channel House, a 39-unit residential condominium development near the water in Lahaina that was destroyed. To be more precise, they owned the land under the condos, as well as one of the units. But most of the condos were owned through leasehold, with 26 years left on the leases.

Sylva and her husband, whose family has owned the land for generations, definitely want to rebuild. But many of the leasehold condo owners are calculating that it might not be worth the cost, considering that the leases run out in 26 years.

These leasehold owners also are wary of the possibility of new restrictions on how close to the ocean structures can be built. Sylva wonders that, too — not just for Channel House but for the residences even closer to the ocean than she is.

“I don’t know how they’re going to handle all those things,” she said.

This brings up much the same question as the places that don’t conform to current zoning. Is it fair to impose a new societal priority — retreating from rising sea levels — on people who built there in an earlier era?

Like Cook, Sylva would like to see Lahaina built back the way it was. “I’m probably in the minority,” she said. But being so close to the ocean “was the charm to me … That was kind of special.”

It apparently was special to others as well. When a unit became vacant at Channel House, Sylva said, the owner would get immediate calls from others who wanted to rent it.

Crosses were placed by unknown individuals to memorialize lives lost in the Aug. 8 wildfire. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Na Hale O Maui, the community land trust, also uses the leasehold model to try to make the houses affordable — the owners don’t have to pay a mortgage on the land itself.

Abdul said most of the families with leaseholds want to rebuild — it’s often the first home they’ve ever owned. One question is whether insurance payouts will be enough to cover the cost, considering the time it will take to rebuild and increasing labor and material costs. Given that their income was limited enough to qualify them for the program, coming up with 20% of the reconstruction cost is likely to be a stretch.

If many people decide to give up, Abdul sees a potential that is very much in contrast with someone like Martin’s view: A community land trust could buy up land and pursue a model of developing affordable housing as Na Hale O Maui has done.

But Abdul believes that the rights of individual landowners should not be sacrificed in the service of a larger vision.

“They say that there are going to be losers and winners,” Abdul said. “That’s really hard. These poor people have been traumatized. I don’t see how we can totally disregard what they want, what their vision is.”

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

Read this next:

Lahaina’s Filipino Community Is Fighting For Its Voice

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About the Author

John Hill

John Hill is the Investigations Editor at Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @johncornellhill.

Latest Comments (0)

Lahaina is for all people. There are special individuals who can build Lahaina so everyone can enjoy, live happy and be respectful to their lifestyles. Let these people show their vision and make Lahaina the Special place once more "to the World ". The people who came to visit Lahaina is longing to return if they want to see it as it is they are welcomed here. And the special individuals who will rebuild Lahaina I miss walking on the waterfront enjoying the early sunrise with my latte to the east, and the blazing sunset with my blue hawaii to the west.

Waiulu99 · 3 weeks ago

"I hope they rebuild Lahaina exactly like it was — a quaint, cute, fun little town," he said."The only change he would make is more affordable housing for people who work in town. That, and building structures — even if they look exactly the same — with materials more resistant to fire."One way to make them more fire resistant is go back to the totan roofs of the plantation days.I wonder if the spread of the fire would've been less had more houses still had totan roofs.

Rob · 4 weeks ago

Peter has some things to say about socialism, but this is still Hawai’i. in the hawaiian way you work together for the community. private land rights are great, but everyone burned together and everyone needs water and sewer and electricity together. It is a time to vision again.

wai_wai · 1 month ago

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