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Tension over tourism flares on Hawaiian island  Dec 21, 2008

Scattered along the western stretch of the Hawaiian island of Molokai are the deserted structures of a vanquished people. This building with the title-free marquee was once a movie theater. That building, a luxurious lodge.

Farther on are the skeletal frames of what were known as "tentalows." People once came from far away, paying handsomely too, for the chance to sleep in the luxurious tent-cabins, the Pacific Ocean within sight, the night stars almost within reach.

These structures stand as eerie remnants of a years-long battle waged over the future of this island, an oasis of 7,500 with no traffic lights and no buildings taller than a coconut tree; with the state's highest unemployment and highest percentage of native Hawaiians; (only the privately owned small island of Niiahu has a higher percentage of native Hawaiians) and with a sweet way of saying you are welcome to visit as long as you understand its ways.

On one side of the fight were the off-island owners of Molokai Ranch, a sprawl of property covering a third of Molokai's 260 square miles. They worked for years with some community members on a broad development proposal that included lots of jobs, the reopening of a closed hotel, the unheard-of donation of 26,000 acres for conservation.

And it included the building of 200 luxury homes along a gorgeous oceanfront spot called La'au Point. The development, the owners said, was necessary to help pay for parts of the tantalizing plan.

Opposing the plan was a majority of the Molokai community, including many who took pride in the island's long resistance to anything that might somehow make it less Hawaiian.

The La'au Point proposal gave breath to their rallying cry of "Keep Molokai Molokai." The property is sacred, they said, its crabs and limpets vital to their subsistence. It should be shared by the people who live on Molokai, not owned by people who do not.

"We're just caretakers," said Walter Ritte, 64, a veteran warrior against anything he thinks might despoil Molokai. "That comes from our culture. The resources come first, and man comes second."

So began the Battle of Molokai Ranch. At stake: "pono" — the Hawaiian concept for what is honorable, righteous, in balance.

The matter of balance has loomed over Molokai Ranch ever since some businessmen bought the property more than a century ago. Over the years, local people needed the jobs created by the various uses of the property — to raise livestock, grow crops, even serve as a wildlife park — but they also resented the dominance of the ranch over land and culture.

Owners came and went, parcels were bought and sold, development battles were won and lost. In the 1970s, protesters managed to thwart a plan to develop ranch land into a Honolulu suburb. But in the 1990s they failed to block the ranch's razing of historic homes in the island's old pineapple-plantation town of Maunaloa, as well as the rising of the Molokai Ranch Lodge, a 22-room luxury hotel featuring the island's only elevator.

The ranch's current owners, Molokai Properties, a subsidiary of GuocoLeisure of Singapore, set out to improve its image. When dozens of jobs were lost in 2001 with the closing of the Kaluakoi Hotel, a few miles away, they bought the property, reopened the adjacent golf course and intimated that they would someday do the same with the hotel.

They also invited the community to help shape a development plan for the ranch property, which was hemorrhaging millions of dollars a year.

Ultimately, the "Community Based Master Land Use Plan," with its sly appropriation of "community," was developed, earning the endorsement of several elected officials, including Hawaii's governor, Linda Lingle.

"It wasn't going to be perfect; we all knew that," said John Sabas, 61, who grew up on Molokai and worked for a while as the ranch's communications manager. "But it would set us on a path of providing a sustainable future for the island."

Others, though, chose the more familiar path of resistance. Some distrusted yet more outsiders promising a better future. Others feared disturbance of the holy compact between the land and its people.

Asserting their own claim to the word "community," they supplemented the local flora with colorful signs saying "Save La'au" and "La'au Sacred." They staged an occupation at La'au Point. In dozens of meetings and hearings they challenged every aspect of the plan, every comma — especially its proposed use of the island's precious water supply.

In late March, the battle abruptly ended. Molokai Ranch, which was losing an estimated $300,000 a month, announced that it was shutting everything down: the hotel, the tentalows, the movie theater, the golf course, the development plans. More than 100 jobs lost, just like that.

In explaining the decision to "mothball" the ranch, its chief executive, Peter Nicholas, said, "Unacceptable delays caused by continued opposition to every aspect of the master plan means we are unable to fund continued normal company operations."

Today, nine months later, the Kaluakoi Hotel remains deserted, the ocean view from its Ohia Lodge enjoyed by no one. A few miles away, glorious spider webs stretch undisturbed on the grounds of the closed Molokai Ranch Lodge. The quiet in western Molokai seems both natural and unnatural.

The ranch's owners, who apparently anticipated the current economic free fall, have not revealed their plans for the third of Molokai they own. "At this time we simply are putting the past behind us and are moving forward," a spokesman said by e-mail, though he did not say what "moving forward" means.

Tension over tourism flares on Hawaiian island
Beach Village at Molokai Ranch / Image via

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