Tension between local Hawaiians and the rich interlopers who have descended on their islands seems to grow fiercer by the day. The latest skirmish: A self-described “disabled Native Hawaiian veteran” said residents were improperly blocked from accessing Hulopoe Beach Park via car last month, in an area on Lanai controlled by software billionaire Larry Ellison.
“I just felt like it was just a slap in the face,” the man, Russel deJetley, told local outlet Honolulu Civil Beat.
Lanai Resorts, an entity ultimately owned by Ellison, operates a gate at the park entrance, but it must remain open at all times except during emergencies. The area flooded last month, and the gate was closed to vehicular access, potentially obstructing people in wheelchairs as well, deJetley said.
According to the veteran, the company kept the entrance closed far longer than necessary, despite his attempt to contact the firm directly. (The Daily Beast was unable to reach deJetley by publication time.)
On August 1, Maui County zoning inspector Gail Davis sent a letter to Lanai Resorts notifying the business of a possible violation, per the Civil Beat.
“There is no evidence of a permit or an amendment… that would allow the closing of the beach park in non-emergency situations,” the letter read. Davis also noted that heavy machines on-site had not gone through the necessary assessment.
The notice stated that a violation could incur a $100,000 penalty, plus $10,000 for each subsequent day of infraction.
The gate has since been opened, deJetley told Civil Beat, though there is lingering skepticism about whether fining Ellison’s business would have meaningfully altered its behavior had the company decided to hold firm.
“For a billionaire like Ellison, what is a fine like that? How is it going to really hurt?” Ann Marie Kirk, a filmmaker who has campaigned for shoreline rights in Hawaii for more than 25 years, told The Daily Beast.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Pulama Lanai, which is tied to Ellison, said the park was closed to vehicles for ten days starting on July 17 “as we prioritized the community’s health and safety following flooding caused by a historic south swell. During this time, the parking lot, bathrooms and picnic areas were repaired and cleaned, and pedestrians could still access the shoreline by foot.”
Asked whether closing the gate for repairs nonetheless comprised a violation of the permit, the spokesperson emphasized that it “was a health and safety issue.”
A Lanai Resorts executive listed on Davis’ letter did not respond to an inquiry sent via LinkedIn.
Public access rights have stirred controversy in Hawaii “for years and years,” said Jeffrey Dack, senior planner with the Maui County Department of Planning. Dack told The Daily Beast there had long been allegations of “folks closing off access… blocking gates, putting barriers in front of them, taking down public access signs.”
The discord between locals and wealthy landowners has only intensified during the pandemic, some activists say, as residents have increasingly sought to spend time outdoors. In February, for instance, a throng of beach-goers assembled near the property of a crypto investor who complained about noise at a popular cliff-diving location. The tycoon believed some bad actors were creating a nuisance; they accused him of “weaponizing environmentalism against indigenous gathering rights.”
Ellison has also been the subject of scrutiny before. Earlier this summer, he graced the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, featuring the cover line “The Lord of Lanai.” The article highlighted local grievances to the billionaire’s near total ownership of the island; some people with long-standing ties to the area have reportedly been forced to leave due to rising costs and dwindling housing inventory.
The outlet noted that many Lanai residents “both rent from [Ellison] and work for him.” If they are fired from their jobs, the article alleged, they can also “be kicked out” of their homes.
“Before, people would move here, and they would embrace Hawaiian culture. Now, this culture of privatization of the beach and the ocean is coming,” said Kirk, referring to the broader upswell of discontent. “That wave of money is something that’s washing over us.”