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The Battle for Papa‘a Bay


Kaua'i is legendary for its beaches, many of them immortalized by Hollywood. As old coastal trails and roads disappear behind fences and manicured landscaping, however, folks may find it easier to rent the movies showcasing these famous locales than to actually go there.

Such is the case with Päpa'a Bay. The idyllic bay's white sands and turquoise waters relieved the tedium of the 1998 Harrison Ford-Anne Heche film Six Days Seven Nights. Access to the isolated beach-located about 10 miles north of Kapa'a-has become a contentious issue since movie producer Peter Guber purchased the adjoining Päpa'a Ranch lands several years back to build a coastal estate.

Photos: Getty Images

Almost immediately, he began alienating some local residents, who suspected he was trying to turn the crescent of white sand fronting his property into a de facto private beach. Surfers and fishermen grumbled when Guber rerouted the Päpa'a Bay access trail to a steeper, more circuitous path. The new trailhead is reached through a privately owned vacant lot that could be closed off. Workmen building Guber's lavish oceanfront home, meanwhile, complained they couldn't even eat lunch on the beach when he was on-site.

Guber also erected a gate topped with barbed wire across county-owned Päpa'a Road where it crosses his land, not far from the ocean. In early 2002, then-Mayor Maryanne Kusaka urged t-he County Council to sell Guber that end bit of road, arguing it had no public value, because it ended 300 feet from the beach.

However, some citizens objected, contending the road originally ran all the way to the beach and should be reopened for public access to Päpa'a Bay. They found a champion in Kaua'i councilman Gary Hooser, who earlier had been told by Guber's workers that he couldn't walk on the private beach. However, the issue languished when Hooser moved from the Council to the state Senate, where he now faces a reelection challenge from Kusaka.

Peter Guber

The debate resurfaced late last year when citizens staged a "take back the beach" event after uncovering documents they claim prove the public road originally ended at the sand. Attorneys for Guber, who is trying to sell Päpa'a Ranch, fired off letters threatening organizers with possible legal action and asked police to stand by. Four people, including three Hawaiians seeking access under state indigenous gathering laws, were arrested for trespassing. The County agreed to conduct a title search to resolve the dispute.

The conflict goes deeper than legal easements, underscoring more troubling social changes on Kaua'i. In the old days of neighborly reciprocity, former ranch manager Duke Wellington recalls, access wasn't an issue, because fishermen obviously needed the road to haul their heavy nets to the bay. New landowners, however, apparently are either unaware of such needs, or are unwilling to share, prompting some locals to bemoan the death of a lifestyle built on cooperation and aloha.

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Honolulu Magazine February 2020
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