Land use panel absolves Lanai Resorts’ golf course water usage

Decadeslong battle may finally be over

A legal battle over water use at Lanai’s Manele Golf Course trickled to an end Wednesday as the state Land Use Commission gave final approval to an order stating that Pulama Lana’i did not violate irrigation conditions at the golf course.

The commission had made the ruling in April but added amendments. Wednesday on Maui, members voted unanimously in favor of the final document.

“This has been a very long case going on close to 28 years, and I think we’re just really happy that we’ve reached a positive result for not only Pulama Lana’i, but we think the island of Lanai,” attorney Benjamin Kudo said. “Hopefully there will not be an appeal filed . . . and this will be the end of it.”

The Maui News could not obtain a copy of the final order Wednesday. When asked about the changes, the commission’s executive officer, Daniel Orodenker, could not go into details but said the final order would be available electronically “as soon as practicable.” He added that it was available at the commission’s office in Honolulu for public review.

Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorney David Kopper, who represented Lanaians for Sensible Growth, said he also requested a copy of the final order by email but had not received one.

The community group Lanaians for Sensible Growth has been the driving opposition to the golf course’s water use. The dispute goes back to 1989 when Lanai Resorts, an owner preceding Pulama Lana’i, requested a district boundary amendment to develop the golf course in Manele, according to the hearing officer’s findings of fact.

In 1991, the commission granted the request. About 110 acres were reclassified from rural to urban, while 38 acres were changed from agricultural to urban for the development of an 18-hole golf course.

However, one condition prohibited the use of “potable water from the high-level groundwater aquifer for golf course irrigation.” Instead, Lanai Resorts was required to develop and use only non-potable sources of water (such as brackish water and reclaimed wastewater) for golf course irrigation.

Lanai Resorts drew water from two main wells, but critics, including Lanaians for Sensible Growth, complained the course was squandering potable water on irrigation. They argued that some brackish water could be used for drinking purposes and were concerned about high-quality drinking water leaking into the wells. In 1996, the commission ruled that Lanai Resorts had violated irrigation rules and ordered it to stop using water from the aquifer.

In the legal battle that broke out, the Hawaii Supreme Court decided in 2004 that the 1996 decision “was clearly erroneous.” The case made its way through the court system and back to the Land Use Commission, which held public hearings on Lanai, Molokai and Maui last year.

Hearings officer Jonathan Likeke Scheuer concluded that Lanai Resorts “provided substantial credible evidence that the water being used to irrigate the Manele Golf Course was and is brackish under the specific meaning of the language in condition 10 in the 1991 order, and therefore an allowable alternate source of water.” He released his recommended findings of fact, conclusions of law and decision and order on April 4.

If the resort had been found violating the condition, the area would have reverted to agricultural and/or rural land use, and the golf course could have been forced to close.

Lanaians for Sensible Growth attorneys declined to comment on whether the group would appeal.

A statement released by the nonprofit law firm Wednesday said: “We stand by the fact that Lanai’s high-level aquifer is the only source of drinking water for the island and our clients’ affirmation that this drinking water should be used for the residents of Lanai rather than a golf course.”

Kudo said the decadeslong dispute had been “a cloud over the future” because if Pulama Lana’i had lost, “it would’ve been a real negative factor in whether we would continue with the resort and other things on the island.” Now that it’s over, Pulama Lana’i will continue on “with the work that they are doing in the community to bring sustainability in terms of energy,” he said.

Pulama Lana’i operates the Four Seasons Resort Lanai and the golf course for billionaire Larry Ellison, who owns 98 percent of the island.

• Colleen Uechi can be reached at