Mark Zuckerberg drops his Hawaiian land lawsuits

Last Updated Jan 27, 2017 4:15 PM EST

HONOLULU - Facebook (FB) chief Mark Zuckerberg is dropping lawsuits that sought to buy out Native Hawaiians who own small pieces of land within his sprawling estate on the island of Kauai.

Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, said in a letter to The Garden Island newspaper Friday that they’re ending the cases “to find a better path forward.” They say they “will work together with the community on a new approach.” 

“Upon reflection, I regret that I did not take the time to fully understand the quiet title process and its history before we moved ahead,” the letter said of the legal move to clear up disputed or undetermined land ownership in Hawaii. “Now that I understand the issues better, it’s clear we made a mistake.”

A spokesman for Zuckerberg confirmed the couple sent the letter. In 2014, the Internet entrepreneur spent $100 million to buy 700 acres of beachfront land on Kauai’s North Shore.  

The disputed 14 parcels mostly belong to Native Hawaiian families awarded the land during the mid-19th century, when private property was established in Hawaii. Many original owners died without wills. Ownership today is split among hundreds of descendants, many of whom are unaware of their shares.

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This Jan. 15, 2017, photo shows public Pilaa Beach, below hillside and ridgetop land owned by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, near Kilauea on the north shore of Kauai in Hawaii. 

Ron Kosen, AP

Zuckerberg and his wife filed court cases last month to identify the owners and ask the court to auction the land. The litigation was aimed “at forcing these families to sell their land at a public court auction to the highest bidder,” according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.   

The parcels in question emerged during land reforms that the Kingdom of Hawaii pursued in the 1800s called “the Great Mahele.” Until then, no individual owned land - it was collectively cared for and used. The reforms allowed commoners to claim title to land they lived on and farmed, usually about a half-acre.  

Moses Haia, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., an agency that frequently represents people on the receiving end of quiet title lawsuits, welcomed the tech billionaire’s move.

“We appreciate Mr. Zuckerberg’s sense of justice and his desire to truly understand the impact that the introduction of private property has had on the indigenous people of Hawaii,” Haia said. “We are encouraged by his desire to engage in a process intended to achieve the true intent of the Mahele.”

Democratic state Rep. Kaniela Ing, who introduced legislation this month requiring people to enter mediation before filing quiet title lawsuits, thanked the Facebook executive.

“You now have an opportunity to set the bar for what being a good neighbor and an ally to indigenous peoples looks like,” Ing said in a statement.