Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is going to great lengths to protect his privacy on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where he purchased a 700-acre plot of land in 2014 for more than $100 million. Starting last month, Zuckerberg began filing lawsuits against Hawaiian land owners who own small slices of his estate that were passed down from generation to generation, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. As many as eight suits have been filed against hundreds of people, some of whom are dead. Notably, this isn’t the first of the social network exec’s attempts to buy his privacy; Zuckerberg’s plan to teardown and rebuild four of his Palo Alto, California homes surrounding his primary residence was denied last September.
The Facebook chief is using a legal maneuver called "quiet title and partition," which forces owners of undeveloped land to sell the property in a public highest-bidder auction. To identify owners of the dozen or so parcels that cross his private property, Zuckerberg commissioned genealogical research that determined the descendants of Kuleana tenant farmers that were granted parts of the land between 1850 and 1855. Based on Hawaiian law, descendants of those farmers — or descendants of any Hawaiian resident that later purchased land from those farmers — remain the rightful owner, regardless of the existence of a property deed or will.
In one instance, Zuckerberg is suing around 300 people who are descendants of Manuel Rapozo, who bought around two acres of land back in 1894 and reportedly leased the land to a local sugar plantation company. Now, more than 100 years later, the land falls on Zuckerberg’s estate and belongs in part to members of Rapozo’s sprawling family tree. It is estimated to be worth around $1.1 million, according to local Kauai newspaper The Garden Island.
Carlos Andrade, a great-grandson of Rapozo, is actually working with Zuckerberg as co-plaintiff to identify other descendants. He thinks as many as 80 percent of these people may be unaware of their claim and fears the county will take control of the land if someone doesn’t come forward to oversee the sale. Andrade, who owns about 14 percent of Rapozo’s land, is now contacting as many extended family members as he can to notify them of their rightful share.
Although the case of Manuel Rapozo seems relatively amicable, the "quiet title and partition" legal maneuver is controversial to some in Hawaii. Historical land ownership on the island is often undocumented and local families are at risk of being forcibly bought out by wealthy outsiders in search of vacation getaways. Fighting court cases against wealthy buyers can also be expensive, difficult, and time-consuming, while public auctions run the risk of granting rightful land owners below-market prices for their property. Defendants are also only given 20 days to respond to the complaint, or lose all right to participate in the auction and reap its rewards.
Still, as the Honolulu Star-Advertiser points out, Zuckerberg is likely more interested in securing his land than he is in swindling Hawaiian land owners out of a few thousand dollars. The paper said sources involved with Kauai land dealings expect Zuckerberg to pay a fair amount or even an especially generous sum to any and all land owners in proceeding auctions. Zuckerberg’s legal team is also legally mandated to try and locate living relatives of deceased land owners to ensure they can participate in the auction.
In response to news reports, Zuckerberg made a personal statement on his Facebook page trying to clear up the situation. "To find all these partial owners so we can pay them their fair share, we filed what is called a "quiet title" action. For most of these folks, they will now receive money for something they never even knew they had. No one will be forced off the land," Zuckerberg wrote. "We love Hawaii and we want to be good members of the community and preserve the environment. We look forward to working closely with the community for years to come."
Update 5:20PM ET, 1/19: Added comment from Zuckerberg posted to his personal Facebook page.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the name of the newspaper cited. It is the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, not the Honolulu Star Advisor.