To the blockchain tycoon Jonathan Yantis, the vibes were off outside his $24 million estate on Maui, one of roughly 10 properties he owns around the world. Locals were gathering at a popular cliff-diving spot a few hundred yards from the house and, he claimed, causing a major ruckus.
Last year Yantis placed a security guard near the beach and installed signs—which looked like official government notices—declaring that noise in the area was restricted to “natural sound only” because of seabirds that nested nearby.
“My goal was to stop the underage drinking,” Yantis told The Daily Beast.
Then the vibes got worse.
Scores of locals, spurred along by a shoreline activist named Kai Nishiki, gathered last weekend at the cliff diving spot to protest what they viewed as yet another encroachment on traditional customs by a wealthy landowner.
“It’s one of the last local spaces,” said lifelong Hawaii resident Summer Starr. “I believe Mr. Yantis is weaponizing environmentalism against indigenous gathering rights.”
“This has really become common and a flashpoint here in Hawaii,” Nishiki added.
Each party has a different interpretation of the facts surrounding the controversy, which was previously reported by Maui Now. To Yantis—who co-founded the blockchain platform WAX—he is a victim of overzealous activists, misinformation, and “cancel culture.”
The multimillionaire said he spent the first five years of his life in Hawaii, then lived on and off the islands through high school. “I was very poor growing up,” he said. “I would never dream of restricting access [to the beach].”
He acknowledged that when he bought his embattled estate in 2020, he knew of the location’s popularity.
“I was aware of the noise,” he said, “but then I started to realize, like, ‘Wait, these are all underaged kids that come down here to party.’” (That point is highly contested.)
Yantis said he installed a friendly security guard who asked locals to abide by regulations—including prohibitions on excessive noise and intoxication. “He’s like Joe Aloha,” Yantis insisted.
“A lot of the local people really liked [the interventions],” he claimed. “They were grateful because it wasn’t like a gang of kids that were controlling the space anymore.”
He further alleged that Nishiki drummed up the controversy after her son got in a spat with the son of his gardener.
Nishiki offered a markedly different story. She said her son, a Native Hawaiian, was accosted at the cliff-diving site and aggressively told that “Hawaiians aren’t special [people]” who deserve preferential rights to the shoreline.
The confrontation, she said, was part of a trend of wealthy investors buying up real estate, then squeezing out locals. “It has really exacerbated the tensions that have happened here in Hawaii because it really changes the makeup of our community. Residents are feeling really pushed out, like they’re strangers in their own homeland,” she said.
In recent years, a number of billionaires have made news for buying up huge swaths of property in the area, including Mark Zuckerberg, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, and Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos.
Frustration over those purchases comes in the context of other, long-simmering tensions over colonization by white outsiders who have pushed out indigenous inhabitants throughout Hawaii’s history.
The pandemic offered a brief respite to the additional scourge of over-tourism on the islands. “No one was here except us,” said Starr. When activity resumed, she said, the tourists and millionaires returned in droves, and “people are losing their patience.”
To many, Yantis came to personify that trend, particularly when he removed a ladder that facilitated easier access to the ocean.
Speaking with The Daily Beast, Yantis initially said he removed the ladder because of an issue with permits on the property and that it never occurred to him that it would be a “big deal.”
Yet he offered a different set of facts on a call with an activist last year, a recording of which The Daily Beast obtained.
“Yes, the ladder, to be fair, was a form of intimidation because I didn’t know how to communicate to these 14-year-old kids,” he said. He added that he believed leaving the ladder in place might make him liable for any accidents.
Asked about those comments, Yantis initially said it was “not true” that he had made the statements as described. When told about the recording, however, he said he remembered the conversation differently, “but if you heard it, then there you go.”
Starr, who was not on the recorded call, argued that the details of local regulations were largely irrelevant and merely an attempt by Yantis “to distract from the fact that he's just being a fucking asshole.”
Tensions reached a boiling point over the weekend as hundreds of locals arrived at the site to protest Yantis’ activities.
Nishiki described the scene as peaceful. “It really just was our community and people going out there and enjoying themselves, cliff jumping, singing our songs. Really celebrating the fact that we have access to the shoreline in that area,” she said.
The event formed organically, she said, and if there were certain individuals who behaved poorly, that was not a reflection on the activist movement as a whole.
Yantis depicted a more chaotic situation. “They showed their asses on the camera and took shits on the front lawn,” he complained. “The place was trashed.”
One 19-year-old, he noted, was hospitalized after suffering a 30-foot-fall.
Jay Penniman, project manager at the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project, expressed frustration at all parties in the dispute. (Though he noted that there is no evidence that local seabirds have been affected by noise at the cliff-diving site, as Yantis previously suggested.)
“The private landowner” should recognize that “this is a community resource here,” he said. Meanwhile, the activist response, he argued, has been needlessly intense. “There have been threats of violence against the property owner, people climbing his fences, threatening him with rocks. It's over the top.”
Neither side has shown any indication of relenting, though in the end it may not matter. Yantis is reportedly trying to sell the property for $59.5 million, more than double what he paid for it just two years ago.
His next move: “I am going to build the largest house on Maui,” he said. “This drama will be over in a couple weeks.”