Legislation will preserve land and energize agriculture
How do we best preserve open space in our beautiful islands? What are the optimum ways to farm our agricultural lands and make sure there will always be lands to farm? How should we use agricultural lands to develop renewable energy feed stocks and technologies? Where do we draw the line in using open space to build much-needed housing?
Can government and the private sector work productively to address these tough issues together with the right regulation and without government bureaucracy being an undue roadblock?
This 2008 legislative session, the House of Representatives has proposed innovative and progressive action to help answer these questions. We have passed important, sometimes controversial, measures over to the Senate. These proposals are important to our future, and I would like to pull them together briefly for you.
In the area of large land conservation, House Bill 2518 would preserve privately held, special conservation lands forever as open space by providing tax incentives to the landowners who made the commitment. We see this as a fair public trade-off for the sake of the preserving pristine land.
There is a separate bill, HB 2247, supported by the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands, that would permit the state to acquire lands in the South Kona Wilderness area. The passion of Rep. Bob Herkes, it is critical that the lands, especially along the ocean, be saved not only for their breathtaking beauty but their unique traditional and cultural value.
Urban land greenways
Suburban land conservation is also on our agenda. HB 2527 calls on the state to establish a system of greenways and trails that mean so much to an islander's quality of life. Although there are stated concerns about the cost of developing urban greenways and which state department is responsible, this measure becomes a critical planning component as our population centers become denser.
Keeping lands in agriculture
Regarding the designation of Important Agricultural Lands, in 2005 the Legislature took action to set standards to identify and protect such properties -- a task that had languished since being mandated by the 1978 state Constitutional Convention.
The House has passed two related measures this year. They give incentives to private landowners who request the state to permanently designate their lands as IAL. Additionally, there are tax incentives for putting these lands into agricultural production forever.
Yes, there is controversy in trying to find the right mix of incentives. Participating IAL landowners may seek to have the state zone other rural lands that they own for affordable housing. And housing for agricultural workers may be built on IAL lands so that agribusiness can thrive. Some argue those provisions go too far. Perhaps there can be improvements. But this is clearly an instance when we cannot let the perfect be an enemy of the good.
To further develop agriculture, HB 2361 requires the state to identify state-owned lands that should be designated important agricultural lands and transfer jurisdiction of these lands to the State Department of Agriculture. It is critical for us to know what public lands have the most potential for crop production and to begin a comprehensive plan for their use.
Renewable energy on ag lands
There also have been breakthroughs on progressively opening up land for renewable energy. HB 2502 would allow photovoltaic farms on lower-graded "D & E" agricultural lands. The sun is out there and we need to farm it. Now.
And HB 2503 permits the use of lands in agricultural districts for agricultural-energy facilities when the production, storage and distribution of renewable energy are integrated with an agricultural activity. The bill states that not less than 90 percent of the acreage should be devoted to agriculture.
HB 2502 and HB 2503 moves from the goal-setting phase for renewable energy to the goal-achievement phase. And though I recognize arguments against these measures, killing them means going back to the same old, same old of burning fossil fuels and making excuses. More broadly, the House has passed measures for the planning and construction of new, jointly run federal and state biosecurity facilities and for stepped up actions to prevent the influx of invasive species. There has been for too long the attitude that this is something we can do later. Well, this year is the time to act, to protect our open space and the food, flowers and energy feed stock we depend on for our livelihood.
There have been many important pronouncements about island sustainability in recent years. The measures I've just covered recognize the criticality of respecting our land and its potential to sustain us. Taken together, these proposed actions offer a balanced, practical path mindful of the life of the land and the essential needs of our people.
Kirk Caldwell (D, Manoa, Manoa Valley, University) is majority leader of the state House of Representatives.