Cousteau’s involvement with resort does not appease activists
Whether Jean-Michel Cousteau is involved or not, some preservation groups and residents in the Kau district of the Big Island are opposed to a resort of any kind at Punaluu.
Sea Mountain Five LLC announced Thursday it is partnering with Cousteau in the development of a 434-acre resort that is to include 300 hotel rooms, a refurbished golf course, and up to 1,500 resort homes and condominiums.
Members of Kau Preservation, a group set up to protect the shoreline, said they were shocked and dismayed by the announcement.
"We're surprised someone with a reputation like (Cousteau) would do this, to work so hard to preserve the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and then turn around and participate in a development that is going to harm critical habitat in the southernmost areas of Hawaii," said Danny Miller, a volunteer at Kau Preservation.
For years, Kau Preservation has fought development at Punaluu, saying the area should be preserved as a living classroom.
Kau is home to sacred lands, the group said, including some of Hawaii's largest heiau, as well as Hawaiian monk seals, turtles and fishponds.
Punaluu is one of the few places in Hawaii where the original Hawaiian land division system from the mountains to the ocean -- or ahupuaa -- remains intact, according to the group.
"Punaluu is already world-renowned as a living classroom," said Miller. "Once you put a huge complex there with shopping centers, restaurants and luxury hotels ... once you build a development of this size, you've destroyed the natural essence of Punaluu."
Pele Hanoa, president of Kau Preservation, runs a learning center at Punaluu that she fears would have to move if the development goes forward.
"If the developer gets his way, we will have to find a new place to teach the children," Hanoa said. "We must protect all of this land. From the mountains to the sea."
Paul Campbell, chairman of the Sierra Club's Big Island chapter, said he supports a moratorium of all development on the Big Island until a community development plan is completed.
Miller said the developers never made an effort to communicate with Kau Preservation, which has about 100 members.
But George Atta, a partner of Group 70 International, which is designing the master plan for Sea Mountain, said the team has been speaking with the community for more than a year.
Atta said a community advisory group was formed and split into committees. Some members of the group formed their own nonprofit, O Ka'u Kakou, which will continue to advise the developers on cultural and environmental issues.
Jack Kelly, vice president of Protect Keopuka Ohana, which previously sued the developers of Hokulia, a billion-dollar luxury development on the Big Island, said he opposed the Sea Mountain resort.
"A resort of this size would change the character of Kau forever," Kelly said. "This Cousteau thing is a ploy by the developer to try to mitigate criticism from the local community, and I think a better way would have been to come to the community."
Cousteau, whose name is on the Jean-Michel Fiji Islands Resort that was established 10 years ago, has seemed confident a resort could be run in an environmentally conscious way.
The Fiji property's stated ethic is: "To take as little from the environment as possible, to give back as much as we can, and to respect others with whom we share this place."
It is home to a dive center established by Cousteau, and boasts having an on-site marine biologist.
But that doesn't relieve the concerns of Kau activists, who said a resort development would hurt the area's habitat.
The 434 acres for the proposed development is zoned resort and residential, according to the developers. It already is home to a rundown golf course, an unoccupied restaurant, and a condominium complex.
A draft environment impact statement is being distributed for review by Hawaii County's planning department. Sea Mountain Five would also need a special management area permit to move forward with the project.
Cousteau said in earlier interview that the development team would work closely with the community to develop a Hawaiian cultural center as well as marine conservation programs.
He said his nonprofit group, the Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Ocean Futures Society, could play a role in giving developers environmental ethics.
But the son of the late Jacques Cousteau apparently has lost some fans in Punaluu.
"I lost respect for him," said Nohea Ka'awa, a Hawaiian studies and marine conservation major at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. "If he knew an ounce about what Kau is about, he wouldn't dare do this to the land, the ocean and our people."