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The battle of Kauai

Longtime islanders have found a focus for their resentment of nonstop development and tourism: the Hawaii Superferry.

October 09, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

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 islandwide 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 Kmart 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 & 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, chief executive of Hawaii Superferry Inc., says he envisions an initial fleet of three or four 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 round trip 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 were added.

The ferry made only two successful trips -- to Maui and Kauai -- on Aug. 26. The next day, Kauai residents blocked the boat, and residents on Maui got a court order 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 Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel K. 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.

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