Legislation promotes urbanization, not agriculture
An urbanization bill passed stealthily by the state Legislature threatens to dramatically change the landscape of Hawaii, exposing farmlands statewide to unbridled development. Cloaked as an incentive for "agricultural protection," Senate Bill 2646 allows large landowners to fast-track reclassification of 15 percent of agricultural lands to the urban or rural districts in exchange for labeling 85 percent of lands as Important Agricultural Lands. This opens the floodgates for rural developments with little regard for community input or sound land-use planning. Private landowners can dictate public land use policy by simply requesting a declaratory order from the Land Use Commission, short-circuiting government oversight and denying local communities the ability to protect their rights.
This bill allows the urbanization of nearly 300,000 acres (15 percent of existing ag lands) - or almost three times the total urbanized land on Oahu. While some advocates of this measure have lamented the urbanization of some 40,000 acres of Hawaii farmland over the past quarter-century, SB 2646 puts the bulldozers in overdrive. Seven times that amount of land stand to be developed.
This measure also thwarts community planning by failing to require rural reclassifications to conform with existing county plans. This gaping loophole will fuel suburban sprawl, luxury fake-farm subdivisions, and mega-golf courses allowed under rural classification but prohibited under ag classification - belying the Legislature's professed commitment to "sustainability."
Consider how the proposed process may unfold. Today, if a large landowner wants to develop a luxury golf course project on Molokai, they would face thorough public review. Under this proposed law, the landowner may just find acreage anywhere in Maui County where they have no present intent to develop, and ask to designate the lands as "Important Agricultural Lands" (which provides them millions in new tax credits). As long as they follow the "85-15" formula, they are free to develop their project - with two houses per acre - without public oversight or adherence to the island's community plan. Communities that try to preserve the agricultural nature of their area could be blindsided by an IAL designation a hundred miles away.
To pass this blatantly pro-development scheme, the Legislature cast aside the democratic process and its own rules. House leadership inserted the "85-15" formula into a popular agricultural protection bill at the eleventh hour. The Senate had already twice rejected the scheme as a stand-alone measure. Legislative rules require an open hearing on all proposed legislation, but the new language had never previously appeared in any prior drafts of SB 2646. When some senators balked at passing the cannibalized SB 2646, House leadership forced it to a floor vote by arbitrarily threatening to hold hostage the popular solar roofs measure, SB 644. Ultimately, a sharply divided (14-10) Senate passed SB 2646.
Perhaps most tragic of all is the Hawaii Farm Bureau's support for this development ploy. Instead of championing the cause of all farmers, the Bureau caters to the large landowners' pro-development agenda.
There is a better way. We need not give away the farm in order to protect important agricultural lands. If the Legislature is serious about achieving statewide food security, it should require the state to designate important ag lands without relying on large landowners to cash in on SB 2646's 15 percent development windfall. Bring landowners, farmers, counties and community members to the table and create a comprehensive solution, rather than putting the large landowners in the driver's seat of statewide planning.
Hawaii needs policies that protect, not urbanize, our ag lands. We need sustainable agriculture to feed ourselves, not sprawling subdivisions for malihini millionaires. If we allow backdoor deregulation to destroy prime farmlands, the Hawaii of the future will be a paved paradise perpetuated not in righteousness but in greed and thoughtless development. Please ask our governor to exercise leadership for all of Hawaii, including future generations, and veto this monumentally flawed bill.
For more information on SB 2646 and how legislators voted, please see www.hi.sierraclub.org/rural.
Jeff Mikulina is director of the Sierra Club, Hawaii chapter.
This commentary also was signed by:
JoAnn Yukimura, Kauai County Councilwoman
Donna Wong, executive director, Hawaii's Thousand Friends
Glenn Teves, Hoolehua, Molokai homestead farmer
Walter Ritte, coordinator, Hui Ho'opakele Aina
Alan Murakami, attorney, Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.
Isaac Moriwake, staff attorney, Earthjustice
Napua Leong, Molokai 'opio
Keone Kealoha, executive director, Malama Kauai
Bob Jacobson, Hawaii County Councilman
Karen Holt, executive director, Molokai Community Service Council
Lynn DeCoite, owner, L&R Sweet Potato Farm, Molokai
Henry Curtis, executive director, Life of the Land
Puanani Burgess, Waianae
Irene Bowie, executive director, Maui Tomorrow Foundation