KAHIKINUI, Maui >> Perched atop a simple wood structure on the southern slopes of Haleakala, Warren Aganos takes in the majestic views, the mountain in one direction, the ocean in another.
Feral cattle graze in the distance while an eerie quiet provides a soothing tonic in this remote, rugged terrain far off the grid, much of it accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“This is my church,” Aganos, 51, says of his 10-acre lot, with nothing but the sound of the wind and an occasional mooing cow to pierce the quiet. He likes to bring his sons here to hunt, plant trees and care for the land.
The serenity of that recent sunny day belies a growing tension that has engulfed this tiny off-the-grid homestead of about a dozen households scattered over 75 lots. The homestead is situated on a portion of more than 22,000 acres owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, all in the shadow of Haleakala.
Multiple controversies have stoked anger, frustration and division within Kahikinui, the only homestead in DHHL’s 203,000-acre land trust in which leases were issued for raw land and management of the area was placed in the hands of homesteaders.
The appointment of an outside company to eradicate Kahikinui’s invasive cattle, deer, goats and pigs, which are harming a vital upland forest, has given rise to accusations of improper carcass dumping and shutting out beneficiaries who long led the effort to deal with the animal problem. After one recent cattle harvest, roughly 50 cut-up carcasses were discovered dumped in a remote section of Kahikinui.
Company supporters say the cattle harvests have been done properly, provide meat to beneficiaries and that past efforts to deal with animal control were ineffective.
Tempers also have flared over the way the homestead association is managing the area, pitting a small group of full-time residents empowered to make decisions for the community against lessees who don’t live there but use their lots. Some lessees say their voices are being ignored and that the association board lacks transparency in governance. Some say they have suffered retaliation for speaking up.
Another flash-point erupted when DHHL recently signaled that it would begin enforcing a long-ignored requirement of the Kahikinui leases — establishing full-time residency. Although 75 leases were issued in 1999, with a requirement to become full-time residents, the vast majority of leaseholders don’t live there.
“They use this place as their personal playground or (for) vacation rentals,” said Kaleo Cullen, a full-time resident and president of the homestead association, Ka Ohana o Kahikinui.
Adding to the community angst, the association board is facing upheaval. Two of the seven Ka Ohana board members resigned last month. A third one is being prosecuted on a charge of criminal property damage for allegedly keying the car of a frequent board critic.
Lessees also recently learned that the Hawaiian Homes Commission, which oversees DHHL, formed an investigative committee to look into complaints related to the eradication of the ungulates, the large hoofed animals harming the upland forest.
The cumulative effect has been escalating stress, anxiety and polarization in recent months, according to lessees and residents.
“It’s getting ugly,” said Donna Sterling, 70, another full-time resident and former association president who supports more transparency in association governance.
DHHL normally develops the roads, utilities and other infrastructure in homestead projects before issuing 99-year leases. Beneficiaries (those at least 50% Native Hawaiian) pay annual rent of $1 for the much sought-after leases. About 28,000 Hawaiians are on a waitlist statewide.
The federal government created the land trust nearly a century ago to help rehabilitate a then-dying race and get Hawaii’s indigenous people back onto the land. DHHL oversees the trust.
In the 1990s, beneficiaries seeking pastoral lots on Maui were so keen on getting land in Kahikinui that they persuaded the agency to create DHHL’s first so-called kuleana leases, issued for subsistence living on raw land. Beneficiaries received parcels ranging from roughly 10 to 15 acres.
Living off the land
Kahikinui is unique for another reason. It is the only intact moku within the trust. A moku is a large land area usually running from mountain to ocean and often containing multiple ahupuaa, which are narrower wedge-shaped parcels also stretching from mountain to sea.
The original Kahikinui leaseholders signed up knowing there were no paved roads, no water or sewage connections, no electricity hook-ups – just acres and acres of arid, undeveloped property on the slopes of Haleakala.
The kuleana program was intended for beneficiaries who wanted to live off the land, just like their ancestors, and was meant to be a subsistence model that DHHL could replicate in other hard-to-develop areas. Plans currently are being pursued for kuleana communities on Kauai.
A key feature of the Kahikinui project was the requirement that lessees be active stewards of the moku, including pursuing plans to restore the health of 4,300 acres of forest land increasingly threatened by feral animals. The forest is critical to protecting the area’s watershed.
The kuleana model also meant the lessees, not DHHL, would be responsible for homestead improvements, further underscoring the notion of a self-sufficient community.
The challenge of living off the grid, though, is not for everyone — even with the installation over the years of a narrow concrete entry road that provides easier access to some lots. The majority, however, still are accessible only with four-wheel-drive vehicles.
“It’s a tough place,” said Aganos, who has yet to rebuild a dwelling that was destroyed by fire in 2016. “You can’t be a city guy and come here.”
DHHL says 46 of the 75 lots are vacant, and 18 others have structures on them but not full-time residents.
The documents that lessees signed in 1999 included a provision that they had up to 6-1/2 years to become full-time residents. But that provision largely went unenforced — until now.
At a tense Oct. 30 meeting with beneficiaries, the department outlined a series of deadlines that Kahikinui’s non-resident lessees must meet regarding proposed dwellings. They have to submit building plans by mid-December, begin construction by April 30 and become full-time residents by April 30, 2021.
Some lessees, however, already are talking about taking DHHL to court, according to Sterling. “They’re saying (the department) will never take our land away,” she said.
The agency is pushing for compliance in part because demand for pastoral lots on Maui has increased substantially since the Kahikinui leases were issued 20 years ago. The number of beneficiaries on the ranching waitlist has nearly doubled, totaling more than 620 as of June 2018, according to DHHL data.
“DHHL will work with those who have made a good faith effort to come into compliance by meeting the Dec. 15 deadline regarding their intent for their lots,” spokesman Cedric Duarte said in written responses to Honolulu Star-Advertiser questions. “For lessees who do not meet the deadlines, the department would ask the (commission) to open a contested case hearing to cancel the leases.”
The issue of who decides association matters also has added to the turmoil.
Ka Ohana by-laws say only full-time residents can vote on association matters.
Blossom Feiteira, an association founding member who helped write the by-laws, said that provision was included to prevent outsiders from making decisions that the residents would have to live with and were not in the best interests of the community.
But the non-resident lessees noted that the two board members who resigned last month, Feiteira and Kapeka Vares, did not live in Kahikinui yet were able to vote on board matters.
Feiteira said she resigned because of family and work obligations.
Vares told the Star-Advertiser in an email that she stepped down because Feiteira did and “for personal reasons I wish to not discuss.”
Kawika Davidson, a non-resident lessee, said the majority of his fellow leaseholders “have lost confidence in the association board.”
Napua Hueu, who has publicly criticized the association and DHHL over their Kahikinui oversight, said she has the support of multiple lessees who are reluctant to speak up for fear of retaliation. Hueu said she experienced the retaliation personally.
She filed a police report in July alleging that an association board member keyed her car while it was parked at a Pukalani market.
In August prosecutors charged Angel Kamaka with second-degree criminal property damage, according to court documents. The case is pending.
In an email to the Star-Advertiser, Kamaka disputed that any charges were pending and said she has never been convicted of a crime.
Folks from both sides of the Kahikinui divide say they hope the years of acrimony eventually can be put behind them so the homestead can reach its full potential.
“There’s 20 years of bad blood in this community,” said Benjamin Rodrigues, 30, a full-time resident for the past four years, father of two and son of the association president. “On both sides there have been wrongs. I don’t want to bring that to my children. I want to break the cycle.”
Said Davidson: “Hopefully we can look above the chaos and remember to treat each other with aloha and kupono (being forthright).”