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Who Gets New Land Formed by Lava?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 15, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Want to get in on the hottest new market in real estate? You might have to let it cool down for a bit, first. By some estimates, the most recent eruption of Hawai'i's Kilauea volcano has added about a mile of new land on the island's coast. This is on top of the 1,000 or so acres added to the land mass from lava flows over the past 70 years.

So, who owns all this new lava-formed land? Unsurprisingly, it's not first come first, first served.

A Windfall of Lava

Back in 1955, another Kilauea eruption added almost eight acres of new land next to property owned by Maurice and Molly Zimring. Both the Zimrings and the State of Hawai'i were under the impression that the Zimrings owned the land, and the couple paid property taxes, planted trees and shrubs on the property, and even had a portion of the land bulldozed. That was until another eruption, this one from Kapoho in 1960 caused the state to have a change of heart.

Hawai'i ordered the Zimrings to vacate the new lava-formed parcel, and the couple sued, taking the case to the Hawai'i Supreme Court. Once there, however, the court ruled against the Zimrings, finding new land was owned by the state:

"Rather than allowing only a few of the many lava victims the windfall of lava extensions, this court believes that equity and sound public policy demand that such land inure to the benefit of all the people of Hawaii, in whose behalf the government acts as trustee ... Thus we hold that lava extensions vest when created in the people of Hawaii, held in public trust by the government for the benefit, use and enjoyment of all the people."

Respect the Aina

In a way, that ruling echoes the sentiments of Native Hawaiians, who, perhaps because they reside on so little of it in the midst of a vast ocean, think about land a little differently:

Native Hawaiians view land and other natural resources as a physical embodiment of various gods. Land was not an object to be bought or sold, but was a responsibility to be cared for in perpetuity. This relationship is best reflected in Mary Kawena Pukui's traditional proverb: He ali`i ka `aina, he kaua ke kanaka (The land is a chief, people are the stewards).

Rather than land owned by a single person, it is the responsibility of all Hawai'i's people. So if you want in on some of that new island coastline, talk to the state.

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