Pilaʻa, Kauai — Last Sunday morning, more than a dozen cars were parked along a six-foot wall built around Mark Zuckerberg’s vast retreat on the northeast corner of Kauai, a small, remote Hawaiian island that’s home to 70,000 people. The gate, which is almost always locked shut, was open, so you could walk right past the Facebook-blue sign that reads “PRIVATE PROPERTY Thank you for not trespassing.” The lava rock wall, which Zuckerberg started building in 2016, inflamed some of his neighbors. It’s built on a bluff a mile from the ocean and now stretches for nearly a mile along Zuckerberg’s property, making it impossible to see the water from the road.
Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan acquired more than 700-acres on Kauai in 2014 by purchasing two adjacent beachside properties reportedly for more than $100 million. Last year, he purchased another 89-acres for $45.3 million. His property extends a mile inland over a former sugarcane plantation. Multiple streams flow across the land to the ocean, carving out forested valleys through rolling pastures grazed by cattle.
While the Facebook CEO likely hoped this corner of Kauai would be his private oasis, his property is peppered with more than a dozen smaller parcels of what are called Kuleana lands—land that was awarded during the 1850s and has been passed down for generations by local families. For the last several years, these lands Zuckerberg doesn’t own have been the source of simmering conflict with the community, as he has taken aggressive steps to buy or otherwise control a part of Kauai.
In the latest development in the ongoing saga, we were let inside Zuckerberg’s gates for an open house of sorts for four of these properties, which as a result of an arcane measure called a quiet title action will be auctioned on the front steps of Kauai’s Fifth Circuit Court Building on March 22.
The crowd waiting to tour the property included a mix of Hawaiians, Kauai residents, lawyers, journalists, and Zuckerberg employees. Many people seemed to already know each other. Some exchanged a hug and kiss on the cheek, as customary in Hawaii.
In theory, the people that showed up were all there to decide if they want to bid, but really, many came for the rare opportunity to glimpse inside the compound of one of the richest people the world. The whole act of building a giant wall invites intrigue and suspicion.
“I’m just curious to see what it looks like, and I’m curious what he’s doing with it because I’ve heard a lot of different things,” said Steph Klockenbrink, a 24-year-old who runs an organic farm on the same street as Zuckerberg’s property.
“It’s locked down a lot of the time, so just having the opportunity to see it is cool,” said Matthew James, a 28-year-old landscaper. “The fact that it seems hush-hush and no one really knows what’s going on kinda raises a red flag.”
It was hardly only curious observers, though. The controversy over the lands has prompted outrage, and some people were there to register their grievance and do research. Kaiulani Mahuka, who hosts a radio show on Kauai Community Radio about Hawaiian sovereignty, told me she was at the open house as a “Kanaka Maoli,” meaning Hawaiian, and said it was “a war crime to sell these lands.”
“The lands were deeded in perpetuity, and that means forever,” said Mahuka. “Kuleana, you don’t own it—your family belongs to it.”
Kuleana is a Hawaiian value that translates to responsibility and refers to the reciprocal relationship people have with the land to care for it. The land, in turn, has a kuleana to provide and care for its stewards. In the 1850s, the Hawaiian Kingdom allocated the Kuleana lands, which were intended to go to Hawaiians who already lived on and worked the land. Before this, Native Hawaiians did not conceive of land ownership but instead shared land communally. The Kuleana lands were meant to be passed down to descendants of the grantees forever.
Individual heirs now often claim tiny fractions, and some families collectively use the land. The quiet title action has been used to allow any co-tenant, regardless of the size of their stake, to dissolve relationships with other co-tenants, sort of like a divorce. The plaintiff who starts a quiet title action must notify everyone with an interest, which often requires detailed genealogy research to determine all of the heirs. The co-tenants can only stop the process once it has been initiated if they come up with an agreement. Otherwise, a judge will order all the shares be put up at public auction, forcing heirs to sell. Fighting the process can be prohibitively costly.
In late 2016, Zuckerberg owned intermediaries, which had acquired small stakes in the outstanding parcels within the bounds of his property, filed quiet title lawsuits. When news broke that he was using shell companies to launch what could be an expensive legal battle against people who didn’t necessarily want to sell their land, there was a public outcry, and Zuckerberg apologized, acknowledging in an op-ed that his strong-arm tactics were perpetuating a process that had led to the loss of land for Hawaiians. He promised to drop the suits.
Of course, he didn’t entirely give up, writing in a Facebook post at the time: “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.”
Which brings us to Carlos Andrade, a retired Hawaiian studies professor, who owns 27 percent of the four parcels we’ve gathered to tour. He’s the great-grandchild of Manuel Rapozo, a Portuguese immigrant who bought the properties in 1894. Andrade, who is part Hawaiian through other ancestors, wrote in an email that he lived on and cultivated the parcels with his immediate family starting in the 1970s.
After Zuckerberg dropped his suits, Andrade remained the sole plaintiff on the quiet title lawsuit over the four parcels, and two years since the controversy started, a judge has ordered the auction of the lands. His attorney told me he “fully intends to bid” at the auction. Andrade did not directly address the question as to whether he was being paid by Zuckerberg, but noted that “I pursue these actions of my own volition.”
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman who handles Zuckerberg’s personal affairs said, “Mark has made clear his support for Dr. Andrade’s claim to the land given his stewardship of the property for over 40 years.”
To some, this resolution sounds a bit too tidy. “...[Zuckerberg] is absolutely going to be the one purchasing, because he wants them,” said Mahuka.
Wayne James Rapozo, who is a lawyer in London and a member of Manuel Rapozo’s extended family represents a group of relatives who are hoping to pool their money to bid on the property.
“This is our swan song,” he said. “We’re basically on the road to being outbid in a way that people are going to tell us it’s not Zuckerberg, but we don’t see any way that Carlos can afford this. It’s just humiliating.”
In a fact sheet handed out at the open house, the parcels were listed as having market values between $229,000 and $459,000, with the largest measuring 1.59 acres. None are served by public utilities.
We were loaded into three utility task vehicles (UTV) at the entrance to Zuckerberg’s property. Though the tour was ostensibly a court-ordered function, it was directed by Shawn Smith, the ranch manager employed by Zuckerberg, with the help of three assistants.
“[Zuckerberg] was very kind to allow me the courtesy of letting people see the parcels and providing me with drivers,” said Commissioner Patrick Childs, the attorney appointed by the court to oversee the case.
Riding the UTVs up and down the red dirt roads and through tree tunnels felt like an amusement park ride. A passenger screamed with glee like it was a roller coaster. (We all had to sign liability waivers to go on the ride.)
After a five minute drive in the direction of the ocean, we arrived at Andrade’s home, which he said he started building in the 1970s. Andrade’s lawyer Harvey Cohen described it as being built all out of recycled materials, which was evident when I saw a diagonally placed window on a green wall. An almost all-window room built on the top of the home probably has an incredible ocean view, but the doors to the house were locked. Cohen said Andrade comes to the property daily, but it seems to me that no one has lived here for years. Tufts of grass are growing out of the gutter.
“He never mālama,” one woman said aloud as we looked at the home. He never takes care.
The yard was overgrown but still happy, with coconuts dangling high above the property and an avocado full of flowers growing over a collapsed shed. Andrade said he planted the trees with his wife and three children.
Before we drove to the next parcel, Smith told us we could spend ten minutes at each property because there was another group now waiting to go on the tour.
“I definitely want you to be able to see them, but it’s kind of a balance we got to get the next crew out,” he said. “So we’ll do maybe ten minutes at each one, if that sounds fair?”
The people in the UTV with me said that they understood, but then joked to each other that it was because “they found out the Hawaiians were here.”
The UTVs took us on a minute-long ride in the direction of the mountains, which simultaneously jutted into the sky and cradled the earth. The next property had a pale green shack on it. A stream ran nearby, and there was a small orchard of tangerines and bananas.
On the way to the next property, cattle egrets flew into the sky, clearing the path for us, and making it feel like we were paniolo in old Hawaii. The third parcel had a trailer, farming equipment, and more sheds on it. At the edge of the property, a papaya tree was bursting with green fruits.
Instead of going to the fourth property—we were told it is too dangerous for the UTVs—we looked over the edge of a valley to see it. All we could see were trees so thick that the canopy blocks out the sky.
:Megeso-William-Alan: Denis, who was dressed in a poncho and was carrying a koa stick adorned with peacock feathers, eagle talons, and a crystal, asked the commissioner if he could walk to the last parcel, but was told instead he could look at it on Google Earth and that he would be arrested if he continued.
Denis speculated Zuckerberg was building on an ancient Hawaiian trail that circles the island, known as the Ala Loa, and that he would have seen this construction if he had been allowed to go to the property. Ala Loa trails exist on every island and are protected by state law, although officials have said they have not yet determined the path of Kauai’s Ala Loa. Ultimately, the tension between the commissioner and Denis speaks to the suspicion surrounding Zuckerberg’s efforts to secure his private retreat.
The almost two-mile long coastline in front of Zuckerberg’s estate includes a couple of white sandy beaches separated by outcroppings of black lava rocks. His property sits above the ocean and slopes into these pristine beaches that are protected from big waves by a fringe reef.
Kauai County Councilmember Felicia Cowden, who was at the open house, told me she used to live a mile away from Zuckerberg’s property and before 2014 she would drive to the beach through the land because she was friends with her neighbors who lived there and they shared their access. Now that the majority of the land is owned by Zuckerberg, there’s no beach access for miles.
In the state of Hawaii, beach access is a public right, which includes the right to transit the shoreline. The public right to beach access and the Kuleana lands honor how Hawaiians lived before Western contact, when instead of owning land, it was stewarded for the community and the next generation. After the open house, I wanted to find out how difficult it is to access the beaches in front of Zuckerberg’s property.
I walked for almost a quarter mile down a red dirt path, over boulders, and across a stream to get to Pilaʻa Beach. Two girls were collecting seashells, a trio was fishing, and a family lounged in beach chairs. A sea turtle slipped from the sand into the steady rhythm of the ocean.
An ATV drove down a bluff from Zuckerberg’s property, and after my trek, I felt envious of their noisy, easy access to a place that is otherwise so quiet and secluded.
At the edge of this beach, there were more rocks, which could be crossed to reveal another sandy beach, but I’d run out of water and decided to walk back. Before heading to the beach on the east side of Zuckerberg’s property, I ran into open house attendees James and Klockenbrink, who helped me get water, since there are no facilities or convenience stores in this rural part of Kauai.
At Larsen’s Beach, there are two paths down to the ocean. I headed west and walked for about half a mile down a well-worn path. About halfway through the walk, it became clear I was at the edge of Zuckerberg’s estate because the land was lined with the same Private Property signs that were at his gate. It was hard to know where to walk without trespassing. Where does the beach stop and the property begin? The law says it’s below the “upper reaches of the wash of the waves.”
Large Laysan Albatross flew above me, a sea turtle sunbathed on the sand, and three Hawaiian monk seals rested on the beach. Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook in 2016 about buying the land and said he was “dedicated to preserving its natural beauty.”
I didn’t make it to the last beach at Waipakē, where there is a secluded sandy spot visible on Google Earth. This is where I imagine Zuckerberg drives down from his property when he wants to go to the beach and be by himself.
Correction: This post originally stated that Felicia Cowden used to walk to the beach through what is now Zuckerberg’s land. In fact, she drove through the land. We regret the error