by Andrew Walden
Walter Ritte, coordinator of Hui Ho’opakele Aina presented 500 signatures September 18 to the Maui County Council demanding funding for an appraisal of Moloka`i Ranch--owner of 1/3 of Moloka`i--as part of an effort to have Maui County illegally use eminent domain to condemn the ranch and hand it over to Ritte’s group. Moloka`i is one of only three communities in the entire United States which were exempted from welfare reform allowing benefits to continue indefinitely.
Backing Ritte is trust fund baby Oliver Degray Vanderbilt, heir to the original “robber baron” Vanderbilt fortune. Oliver Vanderbilt has made a home on Moloka`i and is working to impose his will on the community.
Ritte’s phony “Save La`au” campaign has been falsely portrayed as an anti-development battle, but in reality it is a battle between two competing developers each tied to a different government group.
Moloka`i Ranch proposed to hand over about 95% of the ranch property to the control of a group under the aegis of OHA Moloka`i trustee Collette Machado. In exchange the Ranch would have been allowed to develop luxury homes at La`au point and would use the revenues to revitalize its hotel and golf course along Moloka`i’s western shore.
They were blocked by Ritte’s protesters. When forced into bankruptcy, Ranch CEO Peter Nichols explained: “Unacceptable delays caused by continued opposition to every aspect of the master plan means we are unable to fund continued normal company operations.” Ranch operations are claimed to have lost $37 million dollars from 2001 to 2006.
One hundred twenty Moloka`i residents lost their jobs. The few local businesses suffered. People left the island to seek work, but not everybody was saddened. In a news release sent out within hours of the Ranch’s March 24 closure announcement, Ritte enthuses about building an “economic engine that supports our people.” Ritte’s associate, Karen Holt, Executive Director of the Moloka`i Community Service Council (MCSC) chimes in: “(The) announcement that Moloka`i Ranch is shutting down … provides our island and its people the real opportunity to control its own destiny.” These so-called “grassroots activists” sent their news release out via the high end Honolulu public relations firm, Hastings and Pleadwell.
The Honolulu Advertiser on March 25 compares the Moloka`i Ranch shutdown to the attacks the Big Island’s Hokuli`a development. Hokuli`a was blocked temporarily by activists demanding tens of millions in “settlement” for themselves and for their Office of Hawaiian Affairs-backed native Hawaiian Legal Corporation attorneys.
There is a similarity, but the Moloka`i dispute is more akin to the battle over Punalu`u, Ka`u. It is not an anti-development battle. It is a fight between two developers. One developer is a traditional corporate entity, Singapore-based Guoco Leisure Ltd, owners of Moloka`i Ranch. The other developer pretends to be an anti-development group -- albeit one claiming to be backed by $100 million from Massachusetts-based multi-national energy corporation UPC Wind Energy Partners and energy company, “First Wind”.
Holt says in her March 24 news release: “Nine months ago, MCSC initiated a move to purchase the Ranch. We hope we can continue this effort….(The) MCSC campaign to buy Moloka`i Ranch is attempting to raise funds for the purchase. MCSC is working with the community to create a new entity to own the lands after the purchase.”
With the protests driving down the value of the Ranch and greedy pork-barrel wind farm speculators pledging capital to back Ritte’s scheme, why go to the Council seeking condemnation? It is a negotiating tactic. Ritte tells the Maui News: “These guys (Guoco Leisure) are coming back to us with ridiculous prices.”
Soon Moloka`i may find itself owned 1/3 by Ritte and Co. Will this provide jobs and save Moloka`i businesses? There is a history to be examined. Years ago when activist Judith Napoleon died, her Honolulu Advertiser obituary explained:
“She was associated with activists Walter Ritte Jr and Dr. Emmett Aluli in several causes, including the protests against military bombing of Kaho`olawe. In the mid 1970s the three formed Hui Alaloa, an organization of Moloka`i residents dedicated to expressing concerns over the encroachment of development…. Dissension among Hui Alaloa members came in the early 1980s, however, when Ritte supported the controversial resort proposal at Kataka Rock, while Napoleon and Aluli protested….”
Still chasing after development schemes, Ritte and his cronies are trying to take over the privately-owned 1/3 of Moloka`i. They started by destroying 120 jobs and forcing the closure of the island’s largest private employer.
As Ritte explained in the March 25 Honolulu Advertiser: “It was set up to end this way.”