Monday, July 26, 1999

Kauai faces
dilemma over
use of farmland

Demand for house lots is
high, but environmentalists
are putting up resistance

By Anthony Sommer
Kauai correspondent


LIHUE -- The single biggest problem in writing a new Kauai General Plan comes down to this: What will become of tens of thousands of acres of vacant former sugar land and the thousands more that will become fallow in the next 20 years?

Should the land to stay zoned as agriculture even though no one seems to want to farm it, or be divided into rural residential lots?

The Kauai Planning Department and its consultant Plan Pacific have been wrestling with the question for 1 years to write a new General Plan to guide land use on Kauai through 2020.

The sugar industry gradually is going away -- although Gay & Robinson and Amfac/JMB both insist reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated -- and there is no single crop that can be grown on as massive a scale to replace it.

It's akin to corn disappearing in Iowa or citrus shutting down in Florida.

In 1997, Kauai was made up 353,900 acres, of which 140,800 acres were in the agricultural district, of which only 27 percent actually was being used to grow crops and livestock.

That means more than two-thirds of the ag land on Kauai already consists of weeds, providing full employment for the Kauai Fire Department's brush truck crews and plenty of places to dump junk cars, but adding nothing to the gross county product.

Farmers are not rushing to Kauai to buy or lease the former sugar land, but developers say there are herds of wealthy mainlanders rushing to Kauai eager to buy rural house lots and build homes, or "farm dwellings" as they're called in the statutes.

The marketplace seems to favor residential development. But once those open spaces are gone, they're gone forever. That's the argument of environmentalists, who would just as soon never see another new home on the island.

And they all know their way to the courthouse.

Recently, a two-member group calling itself Friends of Donkey Beach used a lawsuit to force a developer to push home sites on former sugar land so far back on a bluff that they can't be seen from the shoreline.

What to do, what to do ...

A Rural Lands Task Group, a committee of the 35-member Citizens Advisory Council involved in the General Plan, has released the first substantive look at the matter.

The task force called in county agribusiness guru Bill Spitz and Kauai developer Mike Dyer. They didn't really disagree, but they came at the problem from totally different angles.

Spitz, who works for the county's economic development agency, is predicting at least some of the sugar land will go into widely diversified agriculture. But enough to replace all that sugar cane? Not real soon, he says.

Spitz is amused by an often-expressed notion that the island should be self-sustaining, growing all the food it needs and importing nothing.

"The idea flies in the face of economy of scale and what the consumer is willing to pay for much higher-priced local products," he said.

"Safeway and Foodland bring in produce from the mainland and sell it much cheaper than locally grown products and are assured of a dependable year-round supply."

How about exporting Kauai crops to the mainland?

"The problem with shipping to the mainland is that we have a world-class supply of pests," Spitz said.

Some crops, like papaya, can still be profitable even if fruit flies have to be steamed or irradiated to be eliminated. But papaya isn't exactly a staple on tables in the heartland.

Others, like exotic fruits grown on the North Shore of Kauai, are aimed strictly at niche markets, and no one pretends they will expand to cover thousands of acres.

The export market is there for crops such as coffee and seed corn within the limits of demand.

"If we want to look at something for an export substitute, it would probably be beef. This island probably grows grass better than anything else.

"But there are no feed lots remaining in Hawaii and a limited market for range-grown cattle with meat a lot tougher than the corn-fed mainland beef sold in the supermarket."

In the long run, forestry may be the ticket for much of Kauai's vacant farmland. But efforts are stymied by lack of investors willing to wait for a profit for a decade or more.

If you can't farm the former sugar land, you're going to end up with an island covered with guinea grass, argues developer Dyer.

Dyer has made a career of turning ag land into rural house lots. Attractive houses with acres of manicured lawns certainly are more attractive than weeds, he believes.

"The plain truth is, nobody wants to farm the farmland," Dyer said. "Amfac has for-sale signs up asking $4,000 an acre for raw agricultural land. That's the same price it was 30 years ago."

And having ag land for a front yard has a huge tax incentive.

Put a goat out to graze, call the yard a pasture, and the annual property tax on a $150,000 2-acre ag parcel is $1.36. The tax on a $150,000 residential lot in town would be $727.50 a year.

Kauai County officials have a dilemma in designing a one-size-fits-all General Plan to guide land use for the next two decades.

That's why the drafting of a new General Plan, originally a one-year task, is now 18 months old, with at least another year to go.

"It's something Kauai has struggled with for a long time," said County Planning Director Dee Crowell.

"This is going to go through a lot of back and forth in the coming months."

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