Coco Palms Needs More Than Luck

More than 20 years after it was shuttered by Hurricane ‘Iniki, there’s momentum to find new local usage for the legendary Coco Palms

Eyesore, disgrace, dilapidated, hazard – these are just a few of the many words community members have used to describe Coco Palms Resort since Hurricane ‘Iniki destroyed the property more than 20 years ago. And they’re each accurate.

Jennifer Luck is attempting to remedy all that by working with the community to come up with a better solution for the long-overdue rehabilitation of the area. She is Kaua’i director of Hawaiian Islands Land Trust (HILT),

“It’s going to be an immense undertaking to acquire this project for the public’s benefit,” she admits during a recent community gathering at Kapa’a Library.

Community members are urging Luck to come up with some kind of solution to the problem.

“It’s been something on our radar for a number of years,” she says.

HILT, a nonprofit land conservation organization, works to retain perpetual protection of land across the state. It has assisted in preserving ecologically important sites, coastal access, scenic views, cultural sites and agricultural land. One example of now-protected land includes two conservation easements at Black Pot Beach Park, which Luck assisted in orchestrating while she was executive director of Kaua’i Public Land Trust – an organization that has since merged with HILT.

Some 17,500 acres currently are owned by HILT statewide, a majority of which are conservation easements (voluntary legal agreements where the landowner places permanent protection on some or all of their land).

Luck hopes that HILT can negotiate a deal with the owner of Coco Palms Resort, Phillip Ross of Coco Palms Ventures and Petrie Ross Ventures.

“We only work with willing landowners,” she explains.

Recently, permits have expired for the Coco Palms property and the county is in the process of revoking them. The property was purchased in 2006 by Ross for approximately $13 million. Though Luck could not disclose exact sales figures for what he is now asking from HILT, she says it is between $20 million and $25 million.

“We’re not talking small numbers here,” she says.

Strategies already are under way for funding as well as a plan for what to do with the area should the property be acquired. HILT filed an application to receive approximately $277,000 in grant-in-aid funding, which was approved unanimously by the Kaua’i County Council and is awaiting legislative and the governor’s final stamp of approval. The money would cover “due diligence,” including a detailed site appraisal and assessment – evaluating the costs to repair, replace or destroy the property.

Another key component to what Luck deems might be a nearly yearlong process is collecting community recommendations for the future of the historic area.

“Community input is such a huge part of the process,” she says. “We do not presume to know what’s best for this property.”

Some have mentioned the possibility of a national historical park, similar to the City of Refuge on Hawai’i Island, as well as a place for cultural performances that could generate revenue.

“It makes more ecological sense to do something that isn’t a hotel,” says Luck.

Climate change and rising sea levels make building rehabilitation less desirable.

“We would be foolish not to pay attention to that,” she says.

What she does know for certain, however, is that if nothing is done, it will remain in the same state of shambles, continuing to infuriate and embarrass kama’aina.

“We’re giving power back to the community,” Luck says.

The projected timeline begins with the legislative vote, which is set to occur by the end of this month. If approved, the governor could release funds by August. If all goes according to plan, attempts to attain and transform the property after collecting necessary data could be under way by March 2014.

Nonetheless, the most significant part of the process is the public’s involvement.

“This is going to take everybody working together – all hands on deck,” says Luck, adding that HILT is simply a catalyst for the project. “This can be a tremendous example of what a committed community can do.”

The Hawaiian Islands Land Trust hosts “Wild & Scenic Film Festival” at 5 p.m. April 6 and 7 at historic Waimea Theater. For more information, visit www.hilt.org.

For more information about HILT, email jennifer@hilt.org or call 244-5263.

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