The Battle for Kauai: Locals Say No To The Superferry
October 8, 2007
By Alex Tizon
LIHUE, Hawaii – The woman in the sun hat wants to crack someone in the jaw. It’s been a bad day. Actually, for Kaiulani Huff, it’s been a bad few decades. She has watched as her home, the island of Kauai, changed from a wild garden of secret places to — in her eyes — an overcrowded amusement park for rich people. “Welcome to Disneyland,” she says one day while driving around the island. “See the natives. Watch us dance the hula. Clog up our roads. Buy up all the good land. And please, help yourselves to our beaches!”
Development on Kauai has been so unrelenting that Huff’s sentiment has become widespread among longtime residents, although, until recently, it was a quiet simmering. In late August, with the arrival of the Hawaii Superferry, the first interisland car-carrying ferry, the simmering boiled over. Islanders, in the face of Coast Guard gunboats, formed a floating blockade at the harbor entrance and, after a 3-hour standoff, forced the $85-million ferry to turn back to Honolulu. The protest had turned into a citizen uprising.
The crowd represented a motley army of beach bums and businessmen, lawyers and ex-cops, dopers and doctors, and at least one college instructor — many of whom discovered for the first time that they shared the same concerns. How many tourists and resorts and subdivisions can a little island take? “The population is saying, ‘Enough already,’ ” says Dennis Chun, 57, who, with his surfboard, had helped lead the human flotilla. At the forefront of that protest was Huff, her face covered in war paint, like her Polynesian ancestors going into battle. Unlike her ancestors, she wore a bamboo sun hat.
Wearing the same hat this afternoon, she drives around the island’s northshore in bumper-to-bumper traffic and ends up in another confrontation. She stops her pickup at what used to be a favorite secluded spot, now part of Ha’ena Beach Park. The lot overflows with cars, and the beach swarms with people she doesn’t know. At one end, Huff spots an old-timer selling baskets made of coconut leaves. She pulls over to visit with him. Within seconds, a young couple, cameras dangling, slip into their rental car. The driver backs up, but Huff’s truck is blocking the way. The driver tells Huff to move her truck.
“Just cool it, brah,” Huff tells him. “This isn’t New York. This is Kauai. We’ll be leaving in a few.”
The driver backs up another several inches. He glares at Huff.
There was a time, when Huff was younger and rowdier, when she might have turned on the impatient driver. Instead she tells herself to breathe. She buys three baskets, moves her truck. The couple speeds off. Later in the drive, Huff says she wanted to ask the couple:
Is your ohana from here? Did your family gather at this white-sand beach for generations, before it became a park, before the dune was paved over, before the signs warning of riptides went up? Did your family swim in the warm blue saltwater and then race across the road to the cold fresh-water pond that formed from the river that flows down from Mt. Waialeale, and then plop down on the sand for hours on end — with no one else around?
“My family did,” Huff says.
She is 45, a striking, pale-skinned, black-maned “island girl” (her label) and a jack-of-all-trades whose list of former occupations includes flight attendant, bank executive, hula dancer and helicopter refueler. Making a living on a tiny island often means taking whatever job comes along. Now Huff spends most of her time at home, caring for her quadriplegic teenager son (injured in a diving accident), while her husband, a carpenter, works to support the family. They live in a modest, oft-remodeled rambler inland of Kapaa (population 9,472) on the east shore, next to a goat pasture. The house sits among other modest homes inhabited mostly by locals.
She’s on her way to commiserate with a couple of friends whom she calls Auntie Nani and Auntie Cathy. All three grew up on the island. All remember when the only stoplight was in the middle of a cane field and the airport was a metal shack.
Kauai is the oldest geologically and the most isolated of the four main Hawaiian islands. It is 33 miles long and 25 miles across, and lies farther west than the rest, receiving the brunt of the eastern trade winds. The wind and rain over 5.8 million years carved up mountains more jagged and canyons more cavernous than on the other islands. Old-timers will tell you nature roughed up Kauai but, to compensate, made it more stunningly beautiful. The people who lived here tended to be scrappier and more independent by reputation. Kauai was the only island not conquered by Kamehameha the Great (he tried twice) during his 18th century campaign to unify the islands.
Kauai was a sleepy, rural, largely undiscovered place until Elvis made it famous in his 1961 movie “Blue Hawaii.” Each successive tide after that brought more outsiders. When Huff was born a year after the movie, 29,000 people lived here in settlements connected by a single perimeter road. Now, during parts of the year, there are almost that many visitors on the island each day. The tourists must share space with 60,000 residents. The main road system — a two-lane perimeter highway — has remained largely the same, including more than a dozen one-lane bridges.
Huff picks up her aunties, Puanani Rogers, 68, and Cathy Ham Young, 77. The three plan to eat lunch and catch up. Rogers and Ham Young remember the days before Hawaii became a state, and both have had run-ins with newcomers. Rogers has tried unsuccessfully for years to establish an island-wide moratorium on development. Ham Young is in a legal fight with actor Pierce Brosnan, who owns property in Wainiha Valley on the north shore. Brosnan, according to Ham Young, owns several ponds that divert water from her family’s generations-old taro farm. (Brosnan’s attorney says the ponds are legal.)
The island roils with stories of the rich buying and closing off easy access to Kauai’s prime spots, including long stretches of waterfront. Many of the old dirt roads and foot trails leading to beaches no longer exist or have been legally blocked by new landowners. All along Kauai’s east shore, Huff, with her aunties in the back seat, slows her truck to point out beaches where she used to play and swim. “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs hang between swaying palm trees.
All three women lament the predicament of residents who can no longer afford to live here because wealthy transplants have priced them out of the market. According to a county assessment, the median household income of $56,300 can buy a house valued at $183,100. The median price for a single-family home on Kauai has risen to more than $530,000. “That’s why our kids and grandkids have to leave,” Rogers says.
On the island’s south side, in the Lihue area, big-box stores such as Costco, Home Depot and Big K-Mart have taken over immense swaths of land (Wal-Mart built on the other end of town). On the west side, mini-cities of condos and houses have replaced small farms. Land still zoned for agriculture has been taken over by multi-acre estates and boutique ranches. Across the island, more than a dozen major construction projects, totaling 4,500 residential units, are underway. Plans over the next two decades would add an additional 12,000 homes and condos; the population is projected to grow to more than 85,000 by 2025.
“Whenever something from the outside comes here, something on the island dies,” says Mikala Shofner, 38, who helps run the local boys and girls club.
All the percolating resentment, from all corners of the island, seemed to coalesce with the coming of the Superferry. It was a natural enough idea for an island chain: a high-speed ferry that could transport people and their cars from Oahu to the outer islands and back at affordable fares. A fisherman could drive his pickup onto the ferry in Oahu — the ferry’s home base — and drive off on Kauai three hours later. A lei-maker on Kauai could sell the leis on heavily populated Oahu. Families on Maui could visit relatives in Honolulu without spending a fortune on airfare and rental cars. More residents, especially those with flexible schedules, could commute shore to shore: Work on Oahu and live, say, on the Big Island. The Superferry held the potential to transform the way of life in Hawaii, whose islands have each tried to maintain a separate identity and some autonomy.
The Superferry has only one boat for now — a state-of-the-art aluminum catamaran, 350 feet long with a cruising speed of 35 knots (about 40 mph) — but another is under construction. John Garibaldi, the CEO of Hawaii Superferry, says he envisions an initial fleet of 3 or 4 ships. If they’re built like the first one, each will be capable of carrying 866 passengers and 286 cars per trip. The plan was to make a daily Honolulu-to-Maui roundtrip in the morning and Honolulu-to-Kauai in the afternoon. A second ferry would add a daily run to the Big Island. The number of trips would increase as more vessels are added.
The ferry made only one successful trip — to Kauai — on Aug. 26. The next day, Kauai residents blocked the boat, and residents on Maui went to court to keep the ferry away. Activists on the Big Island are considering similar actions.
“Change is a difficult item,” says Garibaldi, 54, formerly chief financial officer of Hawaiian Airlines. His ferry company has powerful allies, among them Gov. Linda Lingle and Sen. Daniel Inouye. Garibaldi says he believes he also has the support of a silent majority of residents. On Kauai, where opposition has been most visceral, supporters — often drowned out in public forums — have started speaking up. The Kauai Chamber of Commerce put out a tepid statement calling for protesters to obey the law. A few residents have come out swinging.
“The ferry would be the best thing to ever happen to this island,” says Jay Trennoche, 62, a retired chiropractor who has lived on Kauai for more than four decades. “From what I’ve seen of the protesters, they’re like, ‘Now that I’m on this beautiful rock, let’s kick the ladder off so no one else can get on.’ ”
Trennoche, who plans to start up a hostel, correctly points out that Kauai, like the rest of the state, depends on tourism for revenue. According to Kauai County, the visitor industry generates one-third of the island’s income. Hotels alone provide 14% of Kauai’s employment. Says Trennoche: “Whether we like outsiders or not — and I personally think they’ve made a hell-hole of the islands — we need them to keep coming.”
Rich Hoeppner sits on his lanai, feet up, coffee cup in hand, listening to the sounds of a family of doves outside. He hears it clearly. None of his windows have glass, and none of his doors have locks. His home, a dodecagon — a circular structure with 12 sides — which he had built out of redwood and cedar, sits at the edge of the Wailua River Valley, a place where wild pigs still roam. He is 68, living the retired life he dreamed of during his decades of work as a police officer on the mainland. Imagine that, he says: an ex-cop living in a house with no locks.
“I know how burglars work,” he says. “I guarantee you there are professional burglars on Oahu who would come here, find houses like mine, load up their trucks and take the next ferry back before anyone realizes their stuff is gone.” Drive around the island, he says. Check out all the pickups with surfboards piled high in the bed, unlocked and unsecured. “That way of life would be gone” with the Superferry, he says.
Chun, one of the surfers in the human blockade, says much of the passion against the Superferry comes from a larger fear that up until now had no focus. The ferry has become that focal point. A number of groups have been holding secret meetings to plan for the next time the Superferry tries to dock here. Chun, Hoeppner and Huff each predicts a larger protest the next time around. At her house by the goat pasture, Huff goes about her daily chores, taking care of husband and son, feeding the dogs — and keeping the war paint and sun hat ready.
Like other islanders, Huff frequently evokes Kauai’s history of rebuffing invaders. “Never conquered,” she says. “Never will be conquered.”
Kauai’s history, though, as with most stories that move beyond the merely patriotic, is more complicated. True, Kamehameha the Great never subjugated the Kingdom of Kauai. But in the end, with time on Kamehameha’s side and the threat of his warriors looming, the Kingdom of Kauai acquiesced on its own. The hardy islanders, for all their independence, could not stop the changing times.