After an emotional 4-hour public meeting Tuesday, mainland developers with plans to build a new 350-room hotel at the derelict Coco Palms resort on Kaua‘i won a small victory.

The County of Kaua‘i Planning Commission unanimously denied a petition — by community groups in opposition to a new hotel — for a declaratory order that would have labeled the developers’ building permits as lapsed due to a lack of substantial progress.

But before the commission voted on the petition, County of Kaua‘i Planning Director Kaʻāina Hull angrily voiced his displeasure with the property owners, Reef Capital Partners, a Utah-based real estate investment company also known as RP21 Coco Palms LLC for this project.

“[I was] shocked by statements made immediately preceding the executive session,” Hull said. “I don’t think those statements have any bearing, quite honestly, on the petition before you folks today … But it does have, quite frankly, bearing on whether or not the department needs to now assess – based off those statements – whether or not revocation or modification of these permits needs to be proposed.”

Hull did not identify who or what had prompted his statement; and he preemptively nixed follow-up questions, citing the possibility of legal action taken in the wake of the commission’s vote.

His ire may have been rooted in comments made by Reef Capital Partners’ architect Ron Agor, who has long been affiliated with attempts to rebuild Coco Palms. Agor claimed the ruins are not being demolished anytime soon.

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The only thing everyone at the meeting could agree upon is that the once-grand Coco Palms resort destroyed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 is a derelict eyesore, and needs to go.

“We were contemplating taking down the structure in front, but after seriously looking into it, we found that the structure is a nonconforming structure and if we were to take it down, we wouldn’t be able to rebuild it,” Agor told the planning commission.

So instead of tearing it down, Agor plans to retrofit the existing infrastructure.

Agor also said he will wait to pull the 25th and final permit needed to complete the construction of a new hotel at Coco Palms, although he can begin work with the permits he already has obtained.

“I’m holding on to that at my discretion with the developers,” Agor said. “Zoning permits’ timelines start when the last permit is issued, and with what’s going on, I don’t want to pull that last permit. We may get appeal after appeal … I mean if I pull the last permit [now], we would lose that permit.”

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Reef Capital’s Managing Director of Private Equity Patrick Manning told the planning commission that his group intended to develop the 46-acre property itself, rather than sell to another developer – a misimpression he claimed many community members may have.

“I only develop projects that are important,” Manning said. “I just wanted you to know that I came here, walked the land many times and have a heavy heart because of those that came before Coco Palms to the more recent celebrity era.”

Reef Capital bought the property for just over $22 million as the only bidder at a foreclosure auction in July 2021. Manning also said Reef Capital has sunk millions into cleaning up the property, claiming its contractors have removed 40 tons of trash, approximately 100 wrecked cars and asbestos from the site. A dust-mitigation screen also has recently been installed along the property’s boundary.

Before the resort was destroyed by Hurricane Iniki, it gained a world-famous reputation as a celebrity playground during the last act of the Golden Age of Hollywood; Elvis Presley strummed a ʻukulele there in the 1961 musical “Blue Hawai‘i.”

But the site, located near the mouth of the Wailuā River on the East Side of Kaua‘i, is also one of the most sacred in all of Hawai‘i. Royalty once lived there, and it is known as the home of ancient heiau (temples), loko i‘a (fishponds) and iwi kupuna (ancestral remains).

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“In the ’50s, I watched my kūpuna [elders] cry because Coco Palms was gonna be built,” 81-year-old Rupert Rowe told the planning commission. “We need ʻāina [land]. ‘Āina gives us identity … you should stop this project.”

Members of I Ola Wailuanui, a working group that opposes a new hotel in favor of a Native Hawaiian cultural center, were in attendance at the meeting. Late last year, the organization announced it had garnered more than $200,000 in pledged donations for the purchase of the embattled property.

I Ola Wailuanui member and attorney Teresa “Teri” Tico filed the petition for a declaratory order on behalf of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action, the Kaua‘i chapter of the Sierra Club, the Kaua‘i chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and a neighbor of the Coco Palms property.

After Tuesday’s meeting, she said I Ola Wailuanui will continue to solicit sources of funding for the potential purchase of the Coco Palms property, despite Reef Capital’s apparent determination to build a new hotel itself.

Such a move may prove worth it. Manning, when speaking to reporters during a break in Tuesday’s proceedings, said Reef Capital would be “happy to sell” – if the price is right.

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