Facebook founder drops legal land battle on Kauai


UPDATE 1/27/16: This article has been updated to reflect new developments that occurred after its initial posting.

After much criticism, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has dropped a lawsuit over land on Kauai.

The land in question falls within his 700 acres of north-shore property.

The parcels were passed down to Native Hawaiians long ago, and in many cases, there’s no clear record of who owns it now.

Zuckerberg previously argued that the move, called a “quiet title” action, would allow these partial owners to “receive money for something they never even knew they had.”

The lawsuit sparked backlash from critics who accused Zuckerberg of forcing Hawaiians off their land.

In a letter published Friday in the Garden Island Newspaper, Zuckerberg pledged to “work together with the community on a new approach. We understand that for native Hawaiians, kuleana are sacred and the quiet title process can be difficult. We want to make this right, talk with the community, and find a better approach.”

State Rep. Kaniela Ing, who opposed the lawsuit, thanked Zuckerberg and said in a statement: “You now have an opportunity to set the bar for what being a good neighbor and an ally to indigenous peoples looks like.”

The letter comes just over a week after Zuckerberg posted the following online:

There have been some misleading stories going around today about our plans in Hawaii, so I want to clear this up.

I posted last month about how Priscilla and I bought some land in Hawaii. We want to create a home on the island, and help preserve the wildlife and natural beauty. You can read about it here.

The land is made up of a few properties. In each case, we worked with the majority owners of each property and reached a deal they thought was fair and wanted to make on their own.

As with most transactions, the majority owners have the right to sell their land if they want, but we need to make sure smaller partial owners get paid for their fair share too.

In Hawaii, this is where it gets more complicated. As part of Hawaiian history, in the mid-1800s, small parcels were granted to families, which after generations might now be split among hundreds of descendants. There aren’t always clear records, and in many cases descendants who own 1/4% or 1% of a property don’t even know they are entitled to anything.

To find all these partial owners so we can pay them their fair share, we filed what is called a “quiet title” action. For most of these folks, they will now receive money for something they never even knew they had. No one will be forced off the land.

We are working with a professor of native Hawaiian studies and long time member of this community, who is participating in this quiet title process with us. It is important to us that we respect Hawaiian history and traditions.

We love Hawaii and we want to be good members of the community and preserve the environment. We look forward to working closely with the community for years to come.

Ing told us the process can put a financial burden on the families who have a stake in the parcels of land.

“They actually end up spending more than they get back in return,” Ing explained. “Imagine if you’re one of these family members and you have the sixth richest person in the world with literally the world’s best team of lawyers sending you a letter saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to buy this, can you strike a deal with us?’ You’re not going to strike a deal without lawyering up yourself.”

Racking up hundreds or thousands in legal fees is what Ing is hoping to avoid for Native Hawaiians who have a stake in kuleana lands.

In light of the Zuckerberg case, Ing began to draft a bill to keep Hawaiian lands in Hawaiian hands. He still hopes to make the legal process easier for Native Hawaiians.

“Now that the Zuckerberg case has brought Quiet Title claims to the fore, I will continue to pursue legislation that will solve this issue once and for all,” he said in a statement.

“It’s not Hawaii style to initiate conversation through a lawsuit. We’re used to going next door, knocking on the door and saying, ‘Hey, let’s hooponopono and let’s talk about this,'” he said. “You’d have to establish a trust and then enter mediation and then we can commence with any lawsuit if the mediation is unsuccessful.”

After so many years of passing down land, Ing says many parcels are down to inches, but he says they’re still worth fighting for.

“We want to do whatever we can through the state to give these families a chance to hold on to what has always been in their family line,” he said.

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