Text and photos by West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro
The hand-painted signs are posted on trees, mail boxes, and front porches all across Molokai. “No to La’au Point”, they say, or simply, “No”. Living’s not so easy on the Friendly Isle, where jobs are scarce for the 7,500 residents, as I found out when the magazine sent me there last November to shoot a cover. But the people cling to their way of life, resisting the tourist pox of other islands, and have doggedly fought the proposed La’au development on the pristine southwest corner of the island.
Now the developer has fought back: The Singapore-based landowner closed its beautiful lodge at Molokai Ranch and fired all 120 employees. That might not sound like a tremendously large number of people, but the 22-room ranch was Molokai’s largest private employer. And as KHON2 News pointed out, on an island with 7,500 people, that’s like 14,000 on Oahu getting pink slips. With an unemployment rate of seven percent, Molokai already has Hawaii’s highest jobless level, twice the state average.
The western side of the island is dry and sparse. The only settlement, tiny Maunaloa, is centered around the ranch. In addition to shuttering the lodge, and cattle operations, Molokai Properties also closed the golf course, the island’s only movie theater, and gas station. A small market, the post office, a kite shop, and Uncle Butch’s Taro Patch jewelry are hanging on. Molokai Properties ceased all Molokai operations and eliminated access to its land—with 64,000 acres, it owns 40 percent of the island.
The pool has been filled with sand (an old Norfolk pine next to the lodge was chainsawed to make room for a dumptruck’s loads). Thirty large palm trees were cut down to block access to the golf course. The lodge has been wrapped with hog fencing and Molokai Properties has stopped paying for the water facility that supplies H2O to the western side of the island. And as of last Thursday, the remaining employees were finally let go.
“They kept people on through May 22nd, so the unemployment office hasn’t been hit yet,” said a friend of mine on the island. “But it’s about to start.”
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With 200 luxury homes on the drawing board, the La’au development was controversial from the beginning. It was slated to sprawl across five miles, making it the longest single development in Hawaii. Target buyers were multi-millionaires looking for second or third homes. Water is extremely scarce on the western side of the island. Other than the ranch’s tent village at Papohaku Beach, the southwest corner is uninhabited. A few dirt roads meander to desolate stretches of sand, but that’s it. Opponents argued that the monk seals who feast at the rich fishing grounds at Penguin Banks would be affected. The local landfill operator said it couldn’t handle the waste from 200 more homes. In late November, just one week after my shoot, Molokai Properties withdrew its environmental impact statement from consideration by the state Land Use Commission. It wasn’t until this spring, though, that it pulled the plug on the ranch.
Peter Nicholas, chief executive officer of Molokai Properties, said in a statement when the closure was announced, "Unacceptable delays caused by continued opposition to every aspect of the master plan means we are unable to fund continued normal company operations."
Plans have been floated for a wind farm or for the state to acquire the land, but Molokai Properties says the land is not for sale.