HILO — Thirteen families living on Mauna Ziona Church property in North Kona are likely to be evicted in the coming weeks, more than two years after the property was purchased at county tax auction by the Free Church of Tonga-Kona.
The families claim the right to live on the land, although they don’t claim ownership, by virtue of an 1889 encumbrance and conveyance deed, handwritten in Hawaiian and recorded with the state Bureau of Conveyances. A representative of the families said this is the latest generation of many who have lived on the land after being awarded a royal patent.
District Court Judge Margaret Masunaga signed judgments for possession of the property on April 10, according to court filings. The families named are Kamanawa, Torres, Kala, Alapai, Kahumoku, Hoomanaunui, Mahi, Kahikina, Ua, Lapa, Kamoku, Keliihuluhulu and Peahi.
The families said they weren’t served eviction papers.
The families, including children in strollers and babies in arms, met Monday with Mayor Harry Kim. They asked him to intercede in the coming evictions, but Kim said it was out of his hands.
In what became a tense standoff with Kim, Tom Anthony, a representative of the Hawaiian Kingdom, who is not listed as a party to the evictions in the court documents, told the mayor “Tongans with machetes” stormed the property and cut chains and padlocks on buildings. The Hawaiian people, he said, have now been locked out of their church.
“These Tongans came into our church with machetes and threatened us,” Anthony told Kim. “Did you sell our church to the Tongans?”
Kim said when he took office, he swore an oath to uphold the federal and state constitutions. He suggested the group find legal representation and take the matter to the courts.
“There is no basis for an investigation. The subject properties was duly assessed and subject to the paramount lien of real property taxes, penalties, and interest,” Kim said in a followup letter Wednesday to Keliihuluhulu Alfred Spinney and Ekalesia Hoole Pope o Kekaha. “During the tax delinquency period, there was no request for a church exemption by you or others of your church filed with the Real Property Tax Division of the county.”
Spinney and Kekaha made similar claims in an April 13 email to Carlsmith Ball, the law firm handling the evictions.
“(Carlsmith Ball attorney) Mr. (Robert) Triantos, prior to the filing of his complaint, caused a group of Tongans, armed with cane knives and other things, to lock us out of our church and they are continuing to terrorize us and our kuleana tenants,” they said in the email.
“We have the videos showing this and will be turning them over, with our complaint, to the (Department of Justice) and FBI. You know that we are not trespassing on any property belonging to your client and because we are not trespassers Mr. Triantos is constructing fraud with his complaint,” they added.
The Free Church of Tonga bought the 10-acre church property at tax auction in January 2016, for $51,000. The adjacent 60 acres went for $422,000. Past-due owners were given 12 months to buy their property back by paying the auction price, plus 12 percent interest.
But Anthony said none of the Hawaiians claiming the right to live on the land were sent tax bills.
Activist Shelley Stevens Mahi had protested the auctioning of the two properties as well as several others she said were royal patent lands that belonged to the Hawaiian families who lived on them.
“The Hawaiians come with the land,” she told potential bidders of the Mauna Ziona property.
Property taxes hadn’t been paid on the iconic green wooden church with the red tin roof since 2009, when the Hawaii Conference United Church of Christ turned over the church to Pastor Norman Keanaaina as settlement in a lawsuit.
The conference had sued Keanaaina in 2007, after he filed a deed and affidavit with the state Bureau of Conveyances purporting ownership of the church. The Hawaii Conference United Church of Christ, a conference begun by missionaries in 1820, represents scores of primarily small churches throughout the state.
The county’s title search documents showed the nonprofit Mauna Ziona Church as fee owner, along with Jean Keka on the larger parcel. Keanaaina was listed as president of the nonprofit corporation in reports filed with the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
He has since left the church and the controversy behind.