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Panel supports bill to help Hawaiians keep ancestral land

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    This Jan. 15, 2017 photo, shows public Pilaa Beach, center, below hillside and ridge top land owned by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, near Kilauea on the north shore of Kauai in Hawaii.

A Hawaii Senate committee voted today for a bill that would force landowners into mediation before they are allowed to file lawsuits to acquire small parcels awarded to Hawaiian commoners during mid-19th century land reforms.

The bill was introduced after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in late 2016 filed lawsuits to identify owners of 14 parcels interspersed within a 700-acre oceanfront estate he owns on Kauai Island.

His lawsuits aimed to help him find the parcel owners so he could buy them out.

Critics say the so-called quiet title lawsuits are dispossessing individual Native Hawaiians of the little land still in their control.

The bill would require mediation as a first step, as a way to reduce legal costs for small landowners and to level the playing field for those facing legal fights with wealthy property owners.

Zuckerberg withdrew his lawsuits last year after a public uproar.

The state House passed the legislation last year but senators haven’t considered it until now.

The Senate Judiciary Committee amended the bill to specify that the plaintiffs bear the cost of the mediation. Plaintiffs may recover costs from defendants, but only what a judge deems equitable, the amended bill says.

The bill now goes to the full Senate.

The 14 parcels within Zuckerberg’s estate fall in a category called kuleana lands.

The lands emerged during land reforms that the Kingdom of Hawaii pursued in the 1800s called “the Great Mahele.” Until then, no individuals owned land because it was collectively cared for and used.

The reforms allowed commoners to claim title to land they lived on and farmed, usually about a half-acre.

But commoners wound up receiving only 1 percent of the land that was distributed, about 28,000 acres. Millions of acres went to Hawaii’s royal family and the government. In subsequent decades, sugar and pineapple plantations acquired large expanses of property.

King Kamehameha IV sold the 3,000-acre ahupuaa, or traditional Hawaiian land division, where Zuckerberg’s property lies to an American businessman, Charles Titcomb, for $2,600 in 1863, according to the Kilauea Neighborhood Association website.

In 1877, Titcomb sold some of it to English Capt. John Ross and Edward Adams, who established Kilauea Sugar Co., The Garden Island newspaper reported. The sugar plantation, which previously owned Zuckerberg’s land, operated until 1971.

The social media billionaire bought his estate in 2014 for $100 million, Forbes reported.

Many original owners of kuleana lands died without wills. In many cases, ownership today is split among hundreds of descendants, many of whom are unaware of their shares.

Families can lose parcels when one member sells a small share to an outsider, who then launches a lawsuit seeking to identify the other owners. The financial burden of hiring attorneys to respond to such lawsuits can be too much for defendants, who often find it easier to sell.

Healani Sonoda-Pale, whose family owns kuleana lands on Molokai, said after the committee hearing that the quiet title process was akin to “legal stealing.”

She noted only 8,205 Hawaiians received kuleana lands in the 1850s and many families have lost control of their lands since.

She said kuleana landowners should be treated like endangered plants and birds whose forest habitat is vigorously protected by the government.

“That’s how I feel kuleana landowners are. It’s very similar,” she said.

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