Kamehameha Schools sues operators of Volcano golf course

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald The interior of the Volcano Golf and Country Club's clubhouse, still gutted from November's fire, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020.

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Damage from a November fire at the Volcano Golf and Country Club has not been repaired as Tuesday.

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald The interior of the clubhouse at Volcano Golf and Country Club was damaged by a fire last November.

  • Photos by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A golfer practices on the driving range at Volcano Golf and Country Club in Volcano on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. The course has overgrown without maintenance from the last owners.

A manager of Volcano Golf Course and Country Club allegedly vowed to bulldoze the entire property rather than return it to its lessor, Kamehameha Schools.

Now, Kamehameha Schools has filed a civil complaint against the operators of the currently closed golf course in the hopes of barring them from further use the property.

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The complaint, filed in mid-May with the First Circuit Court in Honolulu, requests a legal injunction requiring Kailua-Kona-based corporation Hawaiian International Sporting Club to relinquish management of the popular attraction to Kamehameha Schools and prohibiting any further modifications to the property.

According to the complaint, Kamehameha Schools leased 156 acres in Volcano to Volcano Golf and Country Club Inc. in 1969, with the lease to expire in 2024. In 1999, the lease was updated, with HISC becoming the lessee of the property, which it remains to this day.

On April 29, the complaint alleges, Shigeyuki Tachibana — a man who is believed to be a resident of Japan, and referred to within the complaint as an agent of HISC, although other publications have referred to him as HISC’s president —announced to Kamehameha Schools, evidently without warning, that HISC would dissolve and close permanently, four years before the termination of the lease.

HISC’s dissolution came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Tachibana noting in an April 14 letter that the golf course could not be operated under Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamations.

Mayor Harry Kim announced on May 6 that private golf courses were permitted to reopen. Since then, however, HISC still has not conducted any operation or maintenance on the golf course or its related facilities, the complaint alleges. The course itself has become overgrown, discouraging serious play.

However, the complaint also accuses Tachibana of bizarre and threatening behavior over the course of several years.

Beginning in 2016, Tachibana allegedly became antagonistic with Kamehameha Schools, threatening in a letter to “flatten the golf course by bulldozer and return it to Kamehameha Schools,” going on to state that “the land will become a vacant land full of rocks and will not be suitable to keep any animals including horses and cows.”

This was a recurring theme in several letters Tachibana wrote in 2016, the complaint alleges. In March of that year, he warned HISC would “make the Golf Course into the vacant land by flattening it and return the land as originally worthless one [sic] to Kamehameha Schools.” That May, he wrote HISC would “make the Golf Course into the worthless wilderness,” and in June 2016 he allegedly declared “there is no room for doubt that the Golf Course is our possession as we can sell the Golf Course at our discretion. It is up to us when we will flatten the Golf Course owned by us.”

The complaint points out that Tachibana’s stated belief in the lessee’s right to destroy the golf course at will runs contrary to the terms of the lease.

Tachibana repeated his belief that HISC owns the golf course as recently as May 9 of this year, the complaint alleges, when he claimed the ownership of the golf course had been transferred to HISC’s investors.

Because Tachibana’s beliefs about who owns the land fundamentally conflict with Kamehameha Schools’, the complaint requests that the court reiterate that the lease is valid and that HISC breached its obligation as lessee to operate and maintain the course until 2024.

Alapaki Nahale-a, Hawaii Island senior director of Kamehameha Schools’ community engagement and resources, wrote in a statement to the Tribune-Herald Friday that Kamehameha Schools wishes to regain possession of the property for the sake of the surrounding community.

“When it became clear that the tenant … had relinquished its obligation under the lease to operate and maintain the Volcano Golf &Country Club, (we) began seeking legal relief to regain possession of the property for the sake of the health, safety and well-being of the surrounding community,” Nahale-a wrote. “We are doing what we can, following the legal process, to get the property back so that we can move forward, while simultaneously evaluating options for future uses of the site.”

Crystal Kua, a spokeswoman for Kamehameha Schools, declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint, saying “we prefer to let the complaint speak for itself.”

Kua did say, however, that Kamehameha Schools’ priority is now to secure and maintain the property.

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The complaint also requests that Kamehameha Schools be awarded damages against HISC in an amount to be proven at trial. Furthermore, it asks the court to appoint a person to evict and bar HISC from the property as it is returned to Kamehameha Schools.

The complaint makes no mention of a fire that gutted the golf course’s Country Club in November 2019. That fire, which caused an estimated $315,000 in damage, remains under investigation by the Hawaii Police Department, said Puna Patrol Capt. John Briski.