Quote Unquote: Phil Estermann Fights to Save the Ka Iwi Coast

Meet the man who has been fighting the development of the Ka Iwi shoreline since the ’80s.
Photo: David Croxford 

A land purchase to keep more of East Honolulu’s Ka Iwi Coast as open space is expected to be finalized next month. Phil Estermann, 73, has been fighting development of the Ka Iwi shoreline since the ’80s. He’s worked in politics, in energy conservation and at the East-West Center. This latest plan to safeguard 182 acres of mauka lands is a joint effort of The Trust for Public Land and a grassroots community fundraising campaign that raised more than half-a-million dollars to cap city and state funding to reach the $4 million needed to complete the purchase.


MY WIFE AND I moved to Hawai‘i Kai in 1984. So I was here when Kaiser Development Co. tried to revive the Queen’s Beach project in 1985. 


IT WASN’T UNTIL April 1987, the mammoth hearings, when a broad cross-section of the community testified against the housing project across from Sandy Beach.


TWO UNIONS CAME OUT against it. That was the ILWU and Local 5, along with people from all over the community, from all over the island, actually. I couldn’t remember a labor union ever opposing a development. 


WE FILED A LAWSUIT the next month. Then we began to organize the initiative effort. We had about 10 weeks and we gathered 40,000 signatures of people who said they were registered voters. 


IT RESULTED IN a resounding mandate in terms of the public’s affirmation of wanting open space: 249,000 voters voted and two-thirds of them voted for open space. Even more, we won in every district, and the stunning fact was we won in 181 of 183 precincts islandwide.


WE HAD WON one battle and lost another. The court invalidated the initiative in the spring of 1989. The City Council downzoned the property for development. But the public’s use of initiative and referendum had been taken away.


NOW, ONLY THE City Council or county councils can make land-use decisions. 


THE STATE ULTIMATELY bought the Queen’s Beach property from Bishop Estate.


DEVELOPERS PROPOSED building vacation cabins on the slopes of the property, which we’re now in the process of buying. The community rose up and said, no way; they resoundingly rejected that plan. Then there was a golf proposal and the owner fell into bankruptcy.


GARY WELLER AND ELIZABETH REILLY of Livable Hawai‘i Kai worked with the Trust for Public Land’s Laura Kaakua. That’s how we got to this point, with their leadership and the leadership of Ann Marie Kirk.


IN JUNE, we set out to raise $500,000 and we raised $700,000. In a 10-week period, we raised an amazing amount of money. 


I HAD NO IDEA 30 years later it would still be a significant part of my life. It’s extremely gratifying to see that the area is now considered permanently open space. And that we have a new generation of leaders who are carrying on the battle.


I’M MORE LIKE A senior adviser of some kind. A mentor of sorts. I appreciate that role now. It’s really great to see this whole thing move forward.


Did you know? The Trust for Public Land’s Laura Kaakua says the trust recently signed a purchase agreement for the mauka lands and hope to complete the transaction by the end of this year.