Lanai Becoming a Green Community

Lanai: “A really cool 21st-century engineering project”?

Gayle Kimball,
My photos of Lanai, January 2015

Video interview with organic gardner

Lanai is the second least populated Hawaiian island with no stop lights, many red dirt roads, and one gas station, as shown in photos and a documentary called Lanai Beyond the Grid about the men making changes (2016).[1] Lanai’s 141 square miles has been controlled by a feudal lord like owner since the 19th century. First, a Mormon missionary named Walter Gibson bought up land in his own name with church funds and was therefore excommunicated from the church. A Hawaiian anonymous source who I’ll refer to as Source, told me,


Gibson was very loved by the Hawaiians but hated by the haoles. He was the Minister of Health during the Hawaiian kingdom and was a great storyteller. He spoke Hawaiian fluently and wrote a book about sanitary practices for the Hawaiian natives. He was very concerned about how rapidly the Hawaiian natives were dying from white men’s diseases.


He was followed by James Dole. His motto was, “Have happy workers [first Japanese then Filipino], grow better pineapples.” They made the world’s largest pineapple planation starting in 1922. Source said about Dole,


Dole was the island’s first visionary leader. Not only did he lay out the plantation, he also hired a town planner and build the first planned community in the United States! He could have constructed a shanty town but he realized from the get-go that if he took care of his workers, they would take care of his plantation. He didn’t just bring in male workers. He bought in whole families and created a community by doing so. The first plantation manager was known for his strict rules, later managers were less so. It wasn’t a monarchy, but trouble-makers who found themselves out of a job had to leave the island because there would be nowhere for them to live. It wasn’t until the pineapple strike in the early 1950’s that people could actually buy their own homes.


David Murdock bought Castle and Cooke Pineapple Company in 1985 but wasn’t able to make it profitable. Source reported,


When Murdock bought the island, Dole Pineapple was already loosing money. It was on the verge of going under. Labor cost was the primary factor in the company’s losses; another factor was competition from South America entering the US market. Dole had already started plantations in the Philippines and could grow pineapple for less (I was told 40 percent) than in Hawaii. However, fresh fruit for the mainland’s west coast market was still good. Lanai’s pineapple was primarily for canned pineapple. Dole’s Wahiawa plantation produced fresh pineapple for the mainland because shipping was easier. After building the hotels, Murdock had to fund the island’s shortages to the tune of more than $20 million per year. With his other investments going south during the recession, he had to give up Lanai, and my interview with him shows it was a very difficult decision to make.


Murdock sold the Pineapple Island to billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle, about 88,000 acres for $300 million n 2012. Murdock was tired of loosing millions of dollars each year on his investment, the resorts never in the black, and his wind turbines plan, called the Big Wind scheme by locals, was an attempt to recoup some of his investment, but was opposed by vocal residents who he referred to as his children. Families were divided over the issue. Resident Sally Kaye wrote an open letter to Ellison stating, Lanai has “been owned and exploited by one really rich guy or another” for 150 years where residents live in a “medieval lord-of-the-manor system of control.” [2] Source reported, “Sally Kaye’s open letter to Larry Ellison was a shoot-from-the-hip first volley of gunfire! Most residents viewed it negatively.” More Lanai history is discussed in videos.[3]

It’s the largest privately owned island in the United States. Source said,


No one really knows what Larry Ellison personally wants. He doesn’t give interviews often and when he does, it’s all over the news. No one really knows how many private sales he’s made. He did make offers on most of the units that are in the Manele Project District and they were accepted. They are not in a rental pool. He’s also bought up houses in the town, but many of them were on the market for several years.


Ellison continued to buy up homes to add to the 455 rental homes included in the original sale, as well as buying luxury resort condos. His plan to build a new hotel and homes on an undeveloped part of the island, Kahalepalaoa Landing, was stopped by lack of water, when his request to build four wells was turned down. He envisioned a new resort styled like a Hawaiian village with bungalows and a beach club on 20 acres, bordered by 50 homes spread over 250 acres with two public beach parks. He also wants to triple the size of Lanai City, the last intact plantation town in Hawaii. The process was described by Source:


Pulama Lanai presented a master plan for the island to the Lanai Community Plan Advisory Committee, a committee formed by the County of Maui in every community, not just Lanai. The committee met regularly for a year to go over the plans for Lanai. It is now being reviewed by the County of Maui council members before it is accepted as a PLAN. Every project proposed must still go through the permitting process and if it is within the Shoreline Management Area, another layer of community review is necessary.


The world’s fifth-richest person, Ellison has a fortune of an estimated $41 billion and is known for buying trophy real estate in California, Rhode Island, Japan, and Hawaii. He said he plans to turn some of houses into art museums as a hobby because as a child he wanted to be an architect. When he was asked why he bought 98 percent of Lanai, Ellison a resident told me he said, “Because Maui isn’t for sale.” He said, “I’m addicted to winning. The more you win, the more you want to win.” His goal is to make Lanai a “little laboratory,” the first 100 percent renewable energy community in “this really cool 21st-century engineering project.” He told CNBC news in his first and one of few public comments about Lanai,


I love Hawaii and Lanai is a very interesting project. There, what we are going to do is turn Lanai into a model for sustainable enterprise. . . I own the water utility, I own the electric utility and the electric utility is all going to be solar photovoltaic and solar thermal where it can covert sea water into fresh water. And then we have drip irrigation where we are going to have organic farms all over the island. Hopefully we are going to export produce, really the best, organic produce to Japan and elsewhere. …. We are going to support the local people and help them start these businesses. We will have electric cars, so it is going to be a littlie, if you will, laboratory for sustainability in businesses of small scale.[4]


His ownership of regulated utilities—water and transportation, had to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and could have been objected to by the state Consumer Advocate. The electric company is owned by Maui Electric Company and the sewer is run by the County of Maui, which recycles its water for the Koele golf course, closed until 2016 for redesign. Ellison agreed to invest $10 million in the water and waste water wells and pipeline replacement, etc., within five years without charging users for the investment by raising rates. The Manele Project district water is processed to use for irrigation. The PUC wants the water utility to charge rates that reflect the costs in order to conserve water, while Castle & Cooke sold water at a loss. Ellison wants to build an “energy park,” where electricity from solar panels or photosynthesizing algae would be stored in a new smart grid and have sensors in the fields to regulate fertilization and irrigation. As of early 2015, PVC units are on most of the government buildings: the Lanai Airport terminal, the Lanai Police Station, the Lanai Fire Station, and still-to-be-installed, the Lanai Community Hospital bldg.  Pulama has PVC on their laundry building as well as a vehicle charging station for electric cars. La Ola Solar Farm began operating at full capacity of 1.5 megawatts of solar energy in 2012, able to provide 10 percent of the island’s energy needs, the largest system in Hawaii.[5] A heat-exchange generator is at the Manele Bay Hotel, a joint project between Maui Electric Company and Castle & Cooke, and the heat generated by it heats the hot water for the hotel while its’ energy is used for the air-conditioning system.

Ellison’s spokespersons mentioned organic wineries, flower farms, and aquaponics to raise fish and vegetables to change the current situation where most food is imported on barges from Honolulu and individuals take the ferry to shop on Maui. Murdock retained control of ownership of building wind turbines covering over a quarter of the island (20 square miles), if he can get permits, despite resistance from locals. Some were concerned about erosion and their large size and noise. He retained a home on the island.

Ellison set up a management company called Pulama Lanai (cherish Lanai).[6] Their business card states their motto, “Preservation. Progress. Sustainability.” When I asked to speak with them, the reply from Lori Teranishi was, “At this time, the company is not able to participate.” Employees sign a non-disclosure agreement so they don’t speak to outsiders. Pulama delivered a plan for development to the Community Plan Advisory Committee early in 2013. The County of Maui council members came to Lanai on January 28, 2015, to review the plan. Source reported, “ It’s got lots of exciting things in it but it’s a plan on paper only, to be used as a blueprint for the island’s future development for the next 10 year period. Each proposed project will still have to go through the permitting process and public hearings before it can be implemented”

Unlike Murdock who loved Lanai and its inhabitants, Ellison doesn’t attend public meetings, but residents know he’s around when they see his 300 foot yacht with a helicopter pad in the harbor where his son lands (see photo[7]). Ellison does come on the island, as when he visited the only ”best practices” aiming to be as organic as possible on a commercial farm, 18-acres leased by Alberta De Jetley. She has to fence growing areas to keep out deer and wild turkeys. Her main buyer is the Nobu restaurant at the Four Seasons: their attempt at a garden was diminished by wild turkeys (a video shows the garden and chef who started it.[8]) Ellison talked about building greenhouses and bio-beds as well as organic farming so he’s interested in what De Jetley is doing. She’s also known as a mover and shaker who campaigned for the state’s governor.

Elision hired energy expert Bryron Washom from the University of California San Diego in 2013 to help create “a model for sustainable energy” using wind, solar, biomass and hydro (water produces energy in a turbine when solar isn’t on) in a “microgrid.” He planned to increase energy storage with pumped hydro, compressed air and batteries. His report was not released as of Spring 2015. Pulama purchased some Nissan Leaf cars and charging stations for company use. A recycling center and largest Hawaiian solar array that provided about 10 percent of the power needs already were in place before 2012, along with a separate water line for grey water at the hotels. By 2015, the solar array produced about 30 percent of the island’s energy needs. Pulama wants to double its size. The challenge Lanai presents is the shortage of water and deterioration of the ecosystem caused by goats (eradicated in the 70s), sheep, and axis deer brought to the island by ranchers in the nineteenth century. The deer caused a lot of damage in the watershed areas, so they were recently fenced off, but the deer need to be managed more effectively. A video shows the landscape in a video created by a rental car agency.[9]

Ellison also aims to create a cultural center, with a university sustainability research center, film studios on 22 acres, and annual film festival (the first theme was “Governance for Africa”) 50-acre park tennis academy, and art museums to diversify the current dependence on two large resorts and luxury tourism for employment. Aiming to “support the local people,” Ellison said at an oracle event, “We’re empowering the locals to start their own businesses,” whether it’s “in agriculture or a juice bar in Lanai City.” However, few businesses are not owned by Palama; a reporter heard about entrepreneurs who asked Pulama for leases who were offered a job with the company instead. Many people told him they were instructed not to talk with reporters. Pulama restored the public pool that Murdock shut down and recreation center with a playground and basketball court, upgraded landscaping shops in Dole Park in Lanai City, remodeled a store called Richard’s Market into a supermarket, turned old plantation homes into a hospice and pharmacy, expanded the movie theater, developed youth programs including a summer program and help with obtaining college scholarships, provided an “animal-care” day to deworm the numerous cats, and upgraded worker housing to let locals know Ellison is keeping them in mind. Ellison explained, “We think, if we do a good job taking care of the locals, the locals will do a good job taking care of our visitors.”[10]

Source said,


Generally, increasing the amount of private small businesses is happening. The theater upgrade is absolutely fabulous! The community swimming pool was never a public facility. It was always owned and maintained by the company. Murdock had to close the pool due to a lack of money. It was the first thing Pulama reopened and fixed up. It looks like a resort pool and is very popular.

Overall, they’ve helped a lot with funding for the school, energizing community groups, and improving the quality of life. The improvements in Dole Park, with the addition of picnic tables and another pavilion, are very appreciated.


Ellison appointed a Lanai native to be CEO of Pulama, “Lanai Boy” Kurt Matsumoto, who said about his boss, “He saw Lana’i as an opportunity to engage in conversations that are happening around the world–food security, sustainable energy–rather than sit on the sidelines and create a fund,” Pulama appointed Kepa Maly to direct the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, but he had to leave for health issues, although he’s still involved with the Center. It contains historic tools and crafts, some of them shown on video.[11] Another video by the center includes interviews with old timers about traditional life on the island. Maly leads efforts to clear ancient sites of vegetation and restore fish ponds and taro fields.

However, Butch Gima, the president of Lanaians for Sensible Growth, said Pulama has mangers from Honolulu who aren’t familiar with local culture; “Honolulu style is very different from Lanai. [12] “Pretty soon, it’s not going to be the Lanaian way of living here anymore,” Mike Lopez, Trilogy’s director of operations, told a reporter. “Everybody feels that now.” They’re still learning Lanai, but they’re less imperialistic than Castel & Cooke.[13] One resident said Lanai is “not just a slow pace-no pace at all.”[14] Another said, “A friend recently told me that whenever she goes to the sacred places her family showed her, she wonders how will she feel when there are signs pointing them out. The branding people have already been here asking how they should ‘sell’ the island [as in a video Love Lanai]. That’s a very uncomfortable feeling for us.” Another said, “We still have aloha together.” Pulama requires construction contractors to follow a code of conduct recognizing the Lanai style and limited resources. A hotline allows citizens to resort illegal or disorderly conduct by a contractor.

Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa observed, “I see Ellison as trying to find all the things that can enhance Lanai,” he said. “I don’t think it has to be his way or the highway.” [15] However, the author of The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison: God Doesn’t Think He’s Larry Ellison, Mike Wilson commented, “I don’t think his primary concern is fitting in with what Hawaiians want.”[16] However, Ellison refers to “our island” rather than “my island.”

Ellison wanted to build new housing around the island and double the current population of around 3,000 people. Housing was an issue long before Ellison’s arrival. The county sat on a proposed affordable housing project for years. Murdock gave the county 50 acres of land adjacent to the town to build it. A life-long resident, a single parent, told me that she waited three years for housing, while newcomers got bigger homes quicker, and housing costs have gone up since Ellison purchased houses and contractors rent them while working on renovations. Despite the housing problems they created, Pulama resisted requests for a town meeting to discuss housing. Diana Shaw, one of the few medical providers, told a New York Times reporter in 2014 that Pulama ignored her requests for a meeting; despite their statements about improving the health care system, they didn’t come to talk to her at the Lanai Community Health Center. Another resident told me people fear that Ellison’s desire to double the population will bring in voters on his side.

Since water is scarce on Lanai, Pulama proposed a desalination plant. Even though he owns most of the island, Ellison is limited by the Lanai Planning commission, Maui County Council, and state Land Use Commission, and district development approval. The Lanai Planning Commission didn’t agree to a 30-year-lease, did agree to 15 years, but that wasn’t long enough to make the investment worthwhile. Therefore, desalination is on hold after the first stage of construction had begun near Four Seasons at Manele Bay. Residents were worried about how drawing salt water up deep wells might harm the aquifer and didn’t agree to a part of the plan that would allow accessing that water source for human consumption if the desal plant doesn’t work. This was the first time in two years that the community turned down a Pulama proposal. A controversy broke out over charges that Pulama intended to use aquifer water to irrigate golf courses, but the company said it always intended to use brackish well water. It replaced turf with salt-tolerant paspalum grass to reduce use. The conditions imposed by the LPC were what sunk the desalination plant. This project is presently being reviewed by the Planning Dept.

Alberta De Jetley, publisher of the local newspaper and organic farmer, told me in an interview at her farm, “Hawaiians often say no for the sake of making it clear who is boss.” She believes that it’s unhealthy to be dependent on one landlord and should diversify with more small businesses such as Internet-based businesses that can be done anywhere. Her newspaper averages 65 to 70- advertisers so a business base exists. She was surprised that when Murdock ended pineapple growing and offered workers plots of land to farm, she was the one of the few takers in 2003; only two plots were in use. The problem was not water availability but the cost of fencing land to keep out deer and wild turkeys. Four more residents have since started farming.

The focus in 2014 and 2015 was on remodeling the 217-room Four Seasons resort at Manele Bay (built in 1991) to attract wealthy guests. The reported $27 million was spent remodeling smart rooms with local art, mahogany floors with hand-woven wool rugs, teak walls with handmade wall paper, and adding three new swimming pools designed to look natural, remodeling the lobby and spa, etc.. Three new pools were built landscaped with native species to use less water than grass but the resort uses over half of the available water on the island. The plans needed to be approved by the Maui county Council.

Public meetings are held monthly to discuss changes, sweetened by pastries, led by Lynn McCrory, in charge of government affairs, who urges participants to take home left-overs in plastic bags. Joelle Aoki, executive director of the Coalition for a Drug Free Lana’i, says that she’s grateful for the development, “But every time I come out of those meetings, I feel anxious. “I’m very concerned about the ability of the Lana’i community to keep their way of life. Then what if midway through he decides to sell it?” Lanai native Zane de la Cruz reported, “They give out a lot of worthless information. They give you buzzwords.” I attended a planning meeting on January 12, 2015, at the ILUW union Hall where Pulama reported on the renovations in place at the Four Seasons. I asked what progressive green projects are included in the renovations at Four Seasons. The answer from McCrory was that’s too big an issue to talk about here and we could talk about it privately. I asked for a short summary. The other speaker, Linda said they’re recycling cement construction materials into gravel but that’s the only response I got. Someone else asked about the desal plant and was told it’s on hold.

Room rates start at $650 a night—see photos[17], while camping at Hulopoe Beach Park, the only campground, costs $60 a night for a couple. The 102-room Lodge at Koele was used to house construction workers during the renovations. The two resorts employ nearly a quarter of the island. Ellison also bought one only other hotel on the island, Hotel Lanai, and owns about a third of the homes with a waiting list to rent one. Maui County plans to develop 412 affordable homes on lands it received from Castel & Cooke as part of the deal to develop resorts, with no stated timeline. Ellison also bought inter-island Island Air and would like the state to expand the airport. However, plans to refurbish the golf course at Koele Lodge, build a desalination plant, and another hotel were put on hold.

Construction required closing the Lodge and limiting guests at Manele, harming local businesses that rely on tourists, such as tour companies and stores and restaurants in Lanai City. To try to offset this problem, Pulama matched Maui County’s grants for small businesses in 2013, a total of $40,000 available that year. It also offered renters a “rent holiday.” A private $1 million fund from the Agape Foundation to provide residents with start-up loans for new businesses. Laid off workers among the total of 700 resort employees continued to receive their salaries in return for doing volunteer work in the community. I meet a group of workers who were helping environmental students develop a vegetable garden at their school. I asked if they worked in landscaping: They said no, in the kitchen, in the bar, housekeeping, etc. The only school principal, Elton Konoshita is working to prepare students for jobs on the island, rather than leaving after high school, adding agricultural and culinary teachers. The tradition is for students to go to university then come back to Lanai. When I asked him in a telephone conversation about the changes, he said it’s natural that people feel suspicious when one person owns 98 percent of Lanai and is talking about doubling the population. He added that some small businesses had to shut down due to the closure of the resorts, but he’s appreciative of the 17 resort employees assigned to do volunteer work at the school.


Lanai Beyond the Grid TV trailer

[2] Adam Nagourney, “Tiny Hawaiian Island Will See if New Owner Tilts at Windmills,” New York Times, August 22, 2012.


See other videos about Lanai by Henry Jolicoeur

[4] Steffanie Marchese, CNBC News, October 2, 2012.






[10] Laurie Werner, “Can Larry Ellison Model The Future On The Hawaiian Island of Lanai?”, Forbes, January 20, 2014.


[12] Jon Mooallem, “Larry Ellison Bought and Island in Hawaii. Now What?,” New York Times, September 23, 2014.

[13] “Lanai in Photos,” September 23,

[14] Laurie Werner, “Can Larry Ellison Model The Future On The Hawaiian Island of Lanai?”, Forbes, January 20, 2014.

[15] “Big Plans for Lanai,” Contact Center Solutions Industry News, January 26, 2013.

[16] Jennifer Sinco Kelleher,” Larry Ellison’s Lanai Island Purchase: What Will Happen to the Island,” Huffington Post, June 22, 2012.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s