Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan published a letter on Friday to tell the people of Hawaii that they will drop a court action to strip locals of their traditional title to a parcel of land.
The letter, published by a news site located on the island of Kauai, follows popular fury and a planned protest surrounding a 700-acre piece of beachfront property that Zuckerberg purchased in 2014.
While the purchase occurred more than two years ago, the controversy arose because eight holding companies controlled by Zuckerberg filed so-called “quiet title” lawsuits against hundreds of locals. Even though the locals don’t live on the Kauai land, they have a claim to it thanks to the Hawaiian notion of “kuleana”—a custom, reflected in law, recognizing traditional rights to ancestral land even in the absence of deeds or formal property records.
The Zuckerberg lawsuits sought to extinguish those claims, and would likely have paid fair market value to anyone with a tie to the land—including many who may have been aware they owned part of the land at all. But the image of a tech billionaire suing hundreds of people to claim their land rankled many and led to an outcry on social media.
Zuckerberg last week attempted to quell the complaints with a post on Facebook (FB) that complained of “misleading” news reports, and assured Hawaiians he and his wife would respect the environment and be good members of the community.
But this peace-making attempt appeared to fail, and led hundreds in Kauai to plan a march for Friday to protest the lawsuits as well as a six-foot wall Zuckerberg placed around the property.
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In the letter announcing their decision to drop the lawsuit, Zuckerberg and Chan acknowledged the importance of kuleana and said they would seek a “better way” to resolve the matter. The letter reads in part:
To find a better path forward, we are dropping our quiet title actions and will work together with the community on a new approach. We understand that for native Hawaiians, kuleana are sacred and the quiet title process can be difficult. We want to make this right, talk with the community, and find a better 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. Now that I understand the issues better, it’s clear we made a mistake.
The right path is to sit down and discuss how to best move forward. We will continue to speak with community leaders that represent different groups, including native Hawaiians and environmentalists, to find the best path.
The couple’s letter concludes by thanking Kauai for welcoming them into the community.
Ricky Cassiday, a Hawaii resident whose family once owned land within the Zuckerberg parcel, expressed satisfaction with the outcome.
“This is an enlightened path that Mr. Zuckerberg [and his wife] took, in engaging the kuleana owners and the community at large. It’s a refreshing and hopefully the trend they set goes a long way,” said Cassiday in an email to Fortune.