You Can Buy An Island, But Can You Really Own It?
We don't know how much software mogul Larry Ellison recently paid for the Hawaiian island of Lanai — for 98 percent of the island, to be exact — but estimates run upward of half a billion dollars. So what do you get for that kind of money?
Beautiful beaches, for starters. A view of Maui, just eight miles away. A couple of luxury resorts built by the previous owner. And, as a bonus, some delicate history.
At the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, resident Mikala Enfield tells the story of how an island six times the size of Manhattan ended up as one piece of property. It started in the 1860s with a Mormon adventurer named Walter Murray Gibson.
"What he does is, he buys up the land with the church money, the mission money," Enfield says. "And by the time Brigham Young realizes what he's doing — buying up these lands, putting it in his own name — he's excommunicated. But he's in control of most of Lanai's lands."
This consolidation continued under a succession of owners; Enfield's ancestors sold their land in 1919 for $275.
"In my family's situation, my family was told that all access would be blocked. Everything was bought out, and they wouldn't have any way in or out," Enfield says.
By midcentury, Lanai was a plantation for Dole pineapples.
Joan de la Cruz was born and raised here. She says that during the pineapple era, the island really did feel private.
"Back in the '50s, the police and the company would meet the plane if people were coming over the island and didn't have a place to stay. They put them back on the plane," de la Cruz says.
The pineapples are gone now, and it's mainly tourism that supports the residents. De la Cruz runs a general store in town — the grandly named International Food and Clothing Center.
The building belongs to Ellison. He's the landlord to almost every business on the island, and he also owns about a third of the houses. But de la Cruz says the island also has some pockets of public space.
"The roads are county, the highways are state, the beaches are public property. No one can own the beach," de la Cruz says.
In fact, the residents are used to having full access to the island.
Robin Kaye is driving on Ellison's land; he says he doesn't think twice about it — nobody does. He's heading north.
"This road goes about another mile, and it comes to an area that's called the Garden of the Gods, where you can look out and see where the 170 windmills would be," Kaye says.
He's talking about a proposed wind farm to supply power to Honolulu. It's the most controversial issue on Lanai. When the previous owner, David Murdock, sold the island, he kept the right to develop wind power here.
Kaye leads the opposition. He's unfazed by the fact that 98 percent of this island belongs to somebody else.
"In America, you live here, I live here. The fact that I own 6,500 square feet doesn't matter. The fact is, this is my home. It is mine," Kaye says.
An afternoon downpour rakes the town square — also Ellison's property. Standing under a picnic shelter, Wendell Kahoohalahala says the park is looking more spruced up lately. He says he has high hopes for the new owner.
"As long as he takes care of the local people and the visitors that come to Lanai, then everything will be fine," he says.
It's a hint of what one frustrated transplant calls the "medieval" mindset on Lanai — a sense of dependency on the owner. But at the same time, Kahoohalahala also says he thinks Ellison's ownership comes with an asterisk.
"My mom gave birth to me on this land. When she gave birth to me on this land, the land became mine. It becomes my birthright," he says.
That's not something anybody can buy, he says. Not even for half a billion dollars.
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