HONOLULU — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went to court to gain ownership of isolated pockets of land tucked away within his sprawling estate in Hawaii, many of which are less than an acre and could be split between hundreds of owners in a situation unique to the islands.
The 14 parcels on the north shore of Kauai initially belonged to Native Hawaiians who were awarded the land during mid-19th century, when private property was established in the islands.
Many of the owners died without a will and courts never established who inherited the land, according to court documents filed by Zuckerberg's attorneys last month. The documents say hundreds could now own an interest in the small pieces of land, including many who are not aware they do.
The lawsuits ask a court to determine who the owners are and provide them fair compensation. Judges frequently order auctions in similar cases.
Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post Thursday that he filed the cases to find all the partial owners so he can pay them their fair share.
"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," he said.
University of Hawaii law professor David Callies guesses Zuckerberg is concerned about the rights any landlocked landowners would have to cross his property to get to the road or ocean. Courts almost always award an easement that allows landlocked owners to cross another property to get to public areas, he said.
He recalled that George Harrison of the Beatles discovered his Maui neighbors had an easement that passed within 15 feet of his front window. The neighbors had it so they could get to the ocean.
"The court is used to this notion of easements and wealthy famous people not wanting people on their land, especially near their house,"Callies said.
Zuckerberg's court documents say previous owners of his 700-acre property controlled many of the parcels for decades when they were part of a ranch and a sugar plantation.
He cites a piece of land of less than half an acre that was awarded to a woman identified only as Oma in 1851. A sugar plantation, Kilauea Sugar Co., acquired her son J.S. Kaainioi's interest in the lot in 1896. Zuckerberg's court filing aims to find out whether any other descendants of Oma may have an interest in the property.
The parcels emerged during land reforms by the Kingdom of Hawaii land in the 1800s. Until that point, no one individually owned land — it was collectively cared for and used.
King Kamehameha III intended for the land to be divided equally among the monarch, other royals and the commoners who fished and farmed it. Only about 28,000 acres went to commoners. Millions of acres went to the king, government and royals.
Today, much of Hawaii's land is controlled by large landowners and federal, state and local governments.
King Kamehameha IV sold the 3,000-acre ahupuaa, or traditional Hawaiian land division, where Zuckerberg's property lies to an American businessman, Charles Titcomb, for $2,600 in 1863, according to the Kilauea Neighborhood Association website.
Titcomb grew sugar and coffee and managed a cattle ranch there. In 1877, he sold land to English Capt. John Ross and Edward Adams, who established Kilauea Sugar Co., The Garden Island newspaper reported. The sugar plantation operated until 1971.
Many commoners awarded land left their properties when they went to cities for work. Large landowners would use "adverse possession," which is similar to squatting, to take control of the properties.