KEALAKEKUA, Hawaii — When Jim Medeiros gazes down this coastal hillside, where bulldozers are pushing piles of dirt around nascent golf greens, he aches for his Hawaiian ancestors, whose bones are hidden in its rolling terrain.
"Entire graveyards got crushed, bulldozed into giant mounds," said Medeiros, a woodcarver who worked on the construction project for a year before quitting in dismay. "I cry because that's my kupuna [elders]."
Just north of the sparkling Big Island bay where British explorer Capt. James Cook was slain, a development of luxury homes and a golf course is taking shape on 1,500 sprawling acres. Already 10 years in the making, the Hokulia project has carved an emotional divide in this rural community, even among members of the same family.
Take Medeiros and his cousin, Gordon Leslie. Both men trace their family roots to ancestors buried on the property, but their opinions of Hokulia couldn't be further apart.
Medeiros accuses Hokulia, a partnership of Arizona developer Lyle Anderson and Japan Airlines, of desecrating ancient burial sites and letting soil wash into the pristine waters of Kealakekua Bay, a marine conservation district. He founded a group, Protect Keopuka Ohana, that is suing to halt construction and seeking to redesign the project to better protect burial and archeological sites.
Leslie, on the other hand, is one of Hokulia's staunchest defenders. In his youth, he obstructed bulldozers on resort projects along this lava-fringed Kona Coast. But Hokulia, he says, is different. Leslie, a Hokulia consultant, says the developers have "gone beyond the call of duty" in their efforts to help the community and respect the special nature of this land, a thriving agricultural area when Cook arrived in 1778.
In the old days, Hawaiians laid their dead to rest in secret, with no grave markers, because they felt the bones contained the spirit of their ancestors and therefore needed to be hidden for protection. From this quiet outpost on the island of Hawaii to the bustling resort of Waikiki, new construction keeps inadvertently turning up ancient burials and stirring up anguish.
Construction of the Ritz Carlton-Kapalua on Maui in 1988 uncovered more than 1,000 sets of remains, provoking protests that forced the relocation of that hotel. A state law soon was passed to protect burial sites and set up procedures for treatment of remains, including identifying direct descendants, such as Medeiros and Leslie, and involving them in decision-making.
At Hokulia, the developers acknowledge that construction equipment has damaged seven burial sites, including 70 sets of remains, but say that they have followed state protocol, with extensive archeological surveys and monitoring. They note that the property previously was ranchland, "chain-dragged" by tractors in the 1950s to clear underbrush, which likely scrambled some historic features.
"At one time, we had 25 archeologists sweeping the property, marking and flagging and putting up the appropriate buffers," said Bob Stuit, Hokulia's vice president for planning and design. "Fortunately, we found most of the sites before we started construction. Unfortunately, we found other burials in the process of construction because there was nothing on the surface to identify them.
"If we've made a mistake, we're willing to admit it. But we want to move on because we firmly believe we can do this project in a culturally sensitive way."
With roughly $300 million already invested, Hokulia is the largest project underway on the island of Hawaii. It will boast an 18-hole, Jack Nicklaus-signature course; 730 home sites with glittering ocean views, priced up to $2 million each; and a members' lodge. The developers, formerly known as 1250 Oceanside Partners, have wrapped golf holes around some precious sites and, under court order, now guarantee access for descendants.
Several heiau, or temples, have been found on the property, along with hundreds of archeological and burial sites. A sacred hill contains the remains of Kamaekalani, grandmother of King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani. The smooth stepping stones of a trail once trod by Hawaiian chiefs, which may date back 1,000 years, were discovered during construction of the 16th fairway.
Alan Murakami, attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which represents the plaintiffs, objects to Hokulia's treatment of those sites, saying the company has "done the right thing only when the courts forced them to."
In winning government approvals, the developers made substantial concessions to the community. They cut the density of the project in half, from the original 1,500 lots. They agreed to build a $21-million, 5-mile bypass to alleviate congestion on the two-lane highway that links this coffee-growing region to Kona Hospital. And they set aside 140 acres for a 3-mile-long shoreline public park.