Under the Sun
Governor can dispose of legislators’ mess
In 1978, delegates at a constitutional convention astutely decided to protect Hawaii's important agricultural lands and minimize willy-nilly urban, suburban and commercial development.
Thirty years later, when the crucial need for agricultural products for food and potential biofuels has become all the more evident, bone-headed members of the state Legislature have passed a bill that would effectively tear down the shields and allow big landowners to skip past land use laws and regulations.
To add insult to injury, the bill hands them millions of dollars in tax credits and loan guarantees and slams the door in the face of the public by short-circuiting the system through which voters have a say in land-use decisions in their communities. It also gives power to legislators on land issues that they do not currently have.
Gov. Linda Lingle, who has asked the public to advise her on bills before she signs them, ought to kick this one into the trash can and clamp a tight lid on it. If she wants to stop the damaging buying and selling of land in Hawaii, as she said in her State of the State address, she has only to veto the measure that cynically professes to be protection.
If she doesn't, landowners -- who the bill insincerely twins with "farmers," as if everyone doesn't know they aren't one and the same -- will be allowed to declare their holdings as important to agriculture and set aside 85 percent of them for that purpose.
The other 15 percent? Well, therein lies the cunning.
That percentage will get a free ride through the land-use process and by the owner's choosing can be redesignated for urban, rural or conservation uses, the first being the most desirable in developers' profit-starred eyes.
And while 15 percent doesn't sound like a lot, consider the companies and land trusts that own tens of thousands of acres of agriculture land. Fifteen percent of 100 acres? Not much. Fifteen percent of 1,000 acres? If you think that's a quite a spread, try to envision 15 percent of 10,000 acres.
Here's the kicker. The 15 percent doesn't have to be a contiguous parcel of the 85 percent. It doesn't even have to be nearby. As long as the large and small pieces share the same county, the 15 percent rule applies.
On Oahu, where most of what's left of agricultural land is slowly being rezoned to cultivate crops of habitats for a growing humanity, this provision may not have major consequences -- except for shoreline areas ripe for luxury vacation homes. But Maui County could see glaringly bad results since it consists of three islands, including the largely undeveloped stronghold of Molokai. (Can we say Laau Point?)
Here's another little detail. Should landowners change their minds and decide the important agriculture land would be more important for a resort, they can just say so and withdraw the property from the designation.
To be fair, there were lawmakers, primarily in the Senate, who saw that the bill would erode ag land protection, but the House played hard ball, holding hostage smart legislation to require solar water heaters for new home construction. But in the end, the bad bill was passed along with the good.
Sometimes, all you can do is shake your head -- except if you're the governor with a trash can.
has been on the staff of the Star-Bulletin since 1976. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org