Rent dispute closes iconic Molokai mule ride

The mule ride to Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai offered by Kalaupapa Rare Adventures is indefinitely closed.
The mule ride to Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Molokai offered by Kalaupapa Rare Adventures is indefinitely closed. Photo Credit: Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

One of Molokai's most iconic tourist adventures, the mule ride down the 2,000-foot-tall Molokai sea cliffs to Kalaupapa, is closed indefinitely.

The operators of the attraction, Kalaupapa Rare Adventures (KRA), have been evicted from land near the trailhead that they use to stable the mules and organize riders and hikers before embarking on the day-long journey. 

The land is owned by R.W. Meyer, and the company said they were working toward a new rent and profit-sharing agreement but that KRA refused to negotiate or enter into a formal mediation process. Representatives of KRA say the financial demands of R.W. Meyer were too steep and that the intention all along was to evict KRA and take over the business.

In a statement, R.W. Meyer claims KRA failed to show the landowners proof of liability insurance for the business and failed to pay rent for a full year before the eviction, which occurred on April 14. KRA disputed the insurance claim, and posted an image to Facebook that appears to show an email from R.W. Meyer president Paul Meyer dated Jan. 19, 2017, indicating the insurance policy was submitted. 

The mule ride, traversing 26 switchbacks over 3.5 miles, spares riders' knees from the steep trail and ends at Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a picturesque cultural site dedicated to Hansen's disease patients who were isolated on the peninsula on Molokai's northern shore island in 1866. Today, visitors can register in advance for site tours, and a handful of people chose to remain on the island when restrictions on leprosy sufferers were lifted in 1949. The park is one of the most visited sites on Molokai, which receives relatively few visitors compared to Maui, Oahu, Kauai and Hawaii Island. 

"This is not about greed or stopping a business from operating mule rides or tours to Kalaupapa to share the history of Molokai," Paul Meyer said in a statement. "This is about good business practices and fulfilling our responsibility to our shareholders and the 900 living descendants of R.W. Meyer. Every day that Kalaupapa Rare Adventures operates without a lease agreement, we are put at risk, and they have refused to make any attempts to pay rent or even respond to our requests to negotiate a new lease. They left us no choice but to evict them from our property."

R.W. Meyer was founded by Rudolph Wilhelm Meyer, who bought his first piece of land on Molokai in 1854 and served as the first superintendent of the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement. Today, the company manages more than 2,700 acres of family-owned real estate and rental properties. R.W. Meyer has contracted with the mule ride operators for several decades. The mule ride company was formerly operated by Eldon "Buzzy" Sproat, who led mule rides for more than four decades before he died in 2014. His partner, Roy Horner, resigned in 2016, leaving the business to Sproat's family.

R.W. Meyer claims it gave KRA a break on rent in order for them to invest in improvements to the stables and other infrastructure. When the current lease ended on Jan. 31, 2017, R.W. Meyer moved to increase rent from $1,800 to $3,000 per month along with a 20% take of gross sales. 

"They basically want to up our rent and charge us a toll fee," Kalehua Sproat-Augustiro, daughter of Eldon Sproat and one of the family members who runs the operation, told Hawaii News Now. "If anyone knows how it is to raise animals and to run a business here in Hawaii, they'll know that you're lucky if you even take home 20 percent after everything is paid out."

Sproat-Augustiro filed numerous court documents regarding the case, demanding compensation from R.W. Meyer and expressing the family's own claim to the land. The Sproats argue that they have ancestral ties to the land and are the "land patent owners." In July 2017, a federal judge ruled in favor of R.W. Meyer saying KRA failed to address the claims in the eviction filing.

The mule ride is not currently being offered on the KRA's website. In the statement, R.W. Meyer says other businesses have contacted the company about running the escorted tours to the national park.

"We would like nothing more than to continue sharing this experience and the rich history of Molokai and Kalaupapa with our visitors," Meyer said. "But we need to do this in a responsible manner with a company that honors and respects what we have agreed upon and keeps our visitors safe."

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