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Specter of development looms over farm land


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POSTED: Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Aloun Farms stall is the second shoppers encounter upon arriving at the farmers market at Kapiolani Community College.

The first spot is reserved for the coffee kiosk, the market operator's nod to caffeine fixes people might need before plunging into a swarm of food gatherers literally bumping elbows with tour-bused visitors so early in the day.

Aloun's is one of about a dozen stands that sells an assortment of fruits and vegetables that vary with the season.

Summer delivers an abundance of melons, most of them common, but from time to time, an exotic yield from a test crop will appear, samples set out for keen market watchers to taste.

In winter, purple, red, yellow and orange potatoes arrive, some of them also pilot runs to determine what types will grow best in the rich soil of the Ewa Plain.

Judging from the wealth of foods at that small booth — cabbages, bananas, beans, green and sweet round onions, broccoli, corn, pumpkins and squash — just about anything will flourish there.

That's because Aloun Farms sits among agricultural acreage deemed the most productive on Oahu, fields that represent about 14 percent of all available farmland on the island.

It is also the site where a vast development of 12,000 houses has been proposed, setting up the conflict recurrent through Hawaii's history. With every passing year, the battle becomes more acute as open space on a tiny island is overwhelmed by the desire for growth.

The arguments are familiar. Developers cite the purported demand for more houses, portraying their businesses as altruistically fulfilling a need for “;families”; to have their own American dream when it isn't that houses aren't available, but ones people can afford that are in short supply.

Proponents drag out the inviolate “;jobs”; defense while politicians relish the thought of an even larger revenue stream, not considering more may not be needed if there is less demand for civic services.

Supporters will declare that the region has already been designated as growth belts. They will sketch out “;second city”; and “;live, work, play”; concepts that ignore the fact that sheer numbers will guarantee overcrowding no matter the abstract theory.

They will point out that farmers were well aware that the land they lease to grow food would eventually be repurposed for growing income for development investors so should not complain as reality bites.

The farmers haven't, at least publicly. But increasingly, other people are objecting to plowing under first-class agricultural land, recognizing that raising food that need not be shipped across thousands of miles of ocean might bring a measure of security; that though agriculture will never supply the jobs tourism or building shopping malls do, producing bak choi and maybe biofuels while maintaining a landscape tourists prefer has great value, too.

You'll hear the back and forth of opposing views before the state Land Use Commission changes the land designation from agriculture to urban. Then the City Council will have its say, and if past performance holds true, in a few years, harvest of crops will cease. I would be pleased to be wrong.

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Cynthia Oi can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).