Maui Discussion

Waiehu land dispute lingers as ʻohana group begins retrieval of removed items from MEO

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More than a dozen people involved in a Waiehu land dispute with nonprofit Maui Economic Opportunity, showed up at the organization’s Puʻunēnē baseyard Friday to retrieve items removed last week from the subject property.

About a dozen truck and vehicle loads of items were released Friday under the supervision of MEO staff with the assistance of Maui police.

MEO baseyard. PC: Wendy Osher (2.3.23)

At the center of the dispute is an 11.5 acre parcel located near the intersection of Kahekili Highway and Waiehu Beach Road where MEO is planning to develop a 120-unit affordable rental project.

The nonprofit removed the items on Jan. 24, in an attempt to clear the site following a recent state ruling in their favor over litigation involving title interest in the property.

Members of the ʻohana group including those tracing lineage to Pehuino, and claiming kuleana land rights tied to that interest, called the removal and retrieval actions hurtful.

“People should know that this fight is deep because these are relationships. For us as people of ʻāina… that’s our ancestor… we are ʻāina, ʻāina is us,” said Kaniloa Kamaunu, a relative of the family. He was also one of two people placed under citizen’s arrest last week for trespass during clearing of the Waiehu site.


Kamaunu said that as a member of the group Mālama Kakanilua he was doing protocol as an iwi protector of the sand dunes. “As long as there’s knowledge of iwi being present on the property, we have property rights. That’s what I was exercising that day,” said Kamaunu.

The Hale Mahaolu Ke Kahua Affordable Housing Community project received a Finding of No Significant Impact, according to June 2022 edition of “The Environmental Notice” published by the state Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.  

Proposed Hale Mahaolu Ke Kahua Affordable Housing Community conceptual site plan. PC: Design Partners Inc.

In the document’s cultural impacts section it stated: “No ongoing cultural practices were identified within the project area during community consultation for this Cultural Impact Assessment. However, the project area is located adjacent to an inland sand dune complex where numerous human burials have been documented. The project area is also located in the general vicinity of ongoing subsistence-based kalo farms.”

Maui Economic Opportunity, CEO Debbie Cabebe said a ruling in 2nd Circuit Court was for “possessory and title interest.” “The trespassers have been notified multiple times over the last year that they have been squatting on MEO land designated for a much-needed 100% affordable rental project,” she said in a statement Friday. In an earlier release she said MEO could trace the title through King Lunalilo and a royal patent grant.

Sign at Waiehu property. PC: Maui Economic Opportunity

“To make a statement that they have clear title all the way back to Lunalilo is insulting to us, because as kanaka, [we are] keiki o ka ʻāina–and yet we’re displaced and made to be criminals… and to be shown in the public’s eye… that we’re only squatting to get lands, which is not true,” said Kamaunu.

Kaniloa Kamaunu. VC: Wendy Osher (2.3.23)

“MEO took everything. We lived there. Not because we are not able to get housing elsewhere, but because we need to protect our ʻāina, and we need to be close to the ʻāina. The ʻāina is our kupuna and we need to mālama. It’s our kuleana. Our tūtū was the kahu, caretaker of the iwi in these sand dunes, and now it’s our time,” according to one Pehuino heir cited in a family news release.

According to MEO, multiple attempts were made to warn the individuals to leave the property. An executive called the living conditions on site “squalid,” “unsafe” and “unhealthy.”

A family spokesperson Noelani Ahia said members cleared their schedules and rented trucks, but had limited access during the retrieval, with a maximum of five individuals allowed entry at a time. “Every attempt has been made to make this as smooth as possible so as not to further traumatize the heirs and to make sure the situation is de-escalated. But now MEO leadership wants to obstruct their capacity to pack up,” she said in a press release.

The group contends that their belongings were “stolen,” and expressed a desire to retrieve all items at one time.

“While we understand the passion and devotion of the trespassers to their cause, some of their tactics were distressing,” an organization executive said following last week’s efforts. After Friday’s retrieval, Cabebe said there were operational and safety concerns, and misinformation being shared by the family group.


MEO apologized to clients for delays in paratransit and Human Service runs Friday afternoon due to slowdowns at the baseyard gate. 

Remaining belongings in MEO’s possession from the removal will be held until Feb. 24. The organization provided a phone number, 808-243-4316 where impacted individuals can set appointments for pick-ups.

“MEO doesnʻt understand land title issues. Thatʻs obvious. But instead of trying to learn and understand, they’ve chosen the colonizer playbook, calling us squatters, and locking us out of our own land, and now obstructing us from getting our things,” Ahia said.

In a release last week, Cabebe pointed toward affordable housing priorities set by state and county officials, saying, “… our situation at Ke Kahua shows that building those units requires determination and steadfastness.  We remain committed to the cause of providing affordable housing for as many Maui residents as possible.”

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.
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