The kahu of a collection of North Kona churches is hoping state and county officials pay millions for what he claims is years of unauthorized use of church property.
Kahu Norman Keanaaina, leader of the Kekaha Protestant Church, has been fighting the state’s attempts to evict him from the Mauna Ziona property in Kalaoa since 2008. In 2009, the state sued Mauna Ziona, claiming the church failed to adhere to the terms of a 1978 lease agreement to use the property on the mauka side of Mamalahoa Highway by not getting liability insurance.
The state took the case to District Court, where Judge Joseph P. Florendo ruled against the church, which argued the state didn’t hold a proper title to the land. Keanaaina’s attorney, Margaret Wille, successfully argued in the Intermediate Court of Appeals that there were questions about the state’s claims to the land. The ICA said the District Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the case and ordered the lower court to vacate its decision. Land cases typically go to Circuit Court, Keanaaina said.
The state didn’t appeal the ICA ruling, but has sent officials, as recently as last week, to try to remove Keanaaina from the property. He maintains the land is Kingdom of Hawaii land, given to an heir who passed it along to the church in the late 19th century.
Keanaaina viewed the ICA ruling as confirmation that Kekaha Protestant Church holds the title for the land. On that ground, he began challenging Hawaii County’s Department of Water Supply, which built a well on church land mauka of the church buildings in the 1970s.
At the time, the state negotiated with the Hawaii Conference of the United Church of Christ. Keanaaina said the conference held only a passive title to the land, something he learned years after the well was completed.
All of that leads to this week, when Keanaaina put Water Supply on notice that he will be locking the gate to the well, allowing access only at 9 a.m. each day, starting today.
He said, based on the land’s market value, a fair lease for the well site would be $8,500 a month, owed back to the 1970s. That would be about $4 million owed to the church, he said.
The land, as kingdom land, isn’t subject to eminent domain, Keanaaina claimed.
“This is not only Kingdom of Hawaii property, but Kingdom of God,” he said. “The guy you’ve got to challenge is God, not me.”
Attempts to reach Wille, now the County Council representative from Kohala, via cell phone were unsuccessful Tuesday, a state and county holiday.
Assistant Corporation Counsel Kathy Garson disagreed with Keanaaina’s interpretation of the ICA ruling.
“From reading the order, the state was terminating a lease it had with Mauna Ziona Church and evicting the Church,” Garson said in an email Monday. “The order basically dismissed the state’s case for lack of jurisdiction because a question of title was raised. The order does NOT give title to the Mauna Ziona Church.”
The county was not a party in that lawsuit.
Garson and a Water Supply spokeswoman said Monday they were aware of the situation and Keanaaina’s claims. A Water Supply employee working at the well Tuesday morning was friendly to Keanaaina, making sure the kahu was done accessing the well site before the employee left.
The employee also made sure Keanaaina was aware employees would be back later Tuesday to complete a well repair.