Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 7, 2003

Kamilonui Valley farms feel development pinch

 •  Chart: Hawai'i farms by the numbers

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser East Honolulu Writer

HAWAI'I KAI — The pioneers of East Honolulu, its farmers, are feeling the squeeze as development pushes into the few remaining open areas of Hawai'i Kai, a community that's highly prized but nearly built out.

Charles Nii has owned a Hawai'i Kai plant nursery since the 1960s, but now deluxe homes are being built in the remote Kamilonui Valley where he farms. He has had to move his business twice because of developments in the area.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

This hardy group of 13 farmers who toil in the soil of Kamilonui Valley are all that remain of a farm community that was 350 strong in the 1950s, before industrialist Henry J. Kaiser began building the residential community that today is Hawai'i Kai.

As new homes pushed them out of the way, they unintentionally became part of a trend that has seen the number of small farms in Hawai'i — those less than 10 acres — grow by nearly 33 percent since 1964.

The advent of the small farm and the rise in diversified agriculture both sprang from the decline of large-scale sugar and pineapple production.

That seminal event was also largely responsible for a nearly 1 million-acre decline in the amount of land in cultivation statewide in the same period. But that also made farm land readily available on the North Shore.

That's little comfort to the farmers in Hawai'i Kai, where they have lived and worked for decades, raised kids and grandkids, even seen a second generation take over on several of the farms.

Today they occupy a total of 87 acres tucked deep into Kamilonui Valley. They're hemmed in by the mountains and the marina, and now urbanization is encroaching. To one side a housing development is going up and on the other side and behind them will eventually be a cemetery.

While they still have 24 years left on their leases with landowner Kamehameha Schools, they worry what will become of them and their way of life.

"We are completely surrounded by development and we are being forced out," said Lillie Wong, president of the Kamilonui Farmers Cooperative. "Everything is completely urbanized now around us. I'm so angry over what's going on.

"Are we second-class citizens?" said Wong. "We, the cooperative, are the pioneers of Hawai'i Kai."

The farmers now must be concerned about wind direction when they're plowing, or the smell from fertilizers and chemicals because the homes are so close. A landscaped buffer is supposed to shield the homeowners from the farming enterprises, but the farmers worry whether it will be enough.

Some farmers say those in Hawai'i Kai should see the inevitability of urbanization and take their farms and nurseries to the North Shore or the Wai'anae side of Kunia Road, an area that is sprouting new farms as abandoned sugar land is carved into smaller farms.

"Agriculture and residential don't mix well," said Larry Jefts, who cultivates several thousand acres on Moloka'i and in Kunia. "There's more room for farming in Hawai'i; it's just not in Hawai'i Kai."

Hawai'i Kai is popular with homeowners for its good schools and proximity to town, which brings top dollar in the real estate market. Those factors made the community ripe for development, and the last push is under way with 600 homes springing up in The Peninsula, 60 more at Schuler's Leolani development — adjacent to the farmers — and 85 more near the post office.

"There is significant pressure to develop on farm land," said Stephanie Whalen, Hawai'i Agriculture Research Center president. "Farms are developed in areas where there is water, good soil and flat land. Ultimately, that's the same area that development occurs on."

Kamehameha Schools says it will guarantee the farmers the right to the land until their leases expire. After that no one can predict, said Neil Hannahs, director of the trust's land assets division.

Farming is important to Hawai'i's economy as a way to reduce its dependence on tourism. A constitutional mandate backs that.

Gov. Linda Lingle supports agriculture, said Sandra Kunimoto, state Department of Agriculture chairwoman. Diversified agriculture is considered the basis of Lingle's economic stimulus package outlined in her 28-page governmental plan entitled "A New Beginning for Hawai'i." In tony restaurants around the state, locally grown produce is often touted. There are Kula strawberries, 'Nalo greens from Waimanalo, Kamuela tomatoes from the Big Island and Maui onions — all grown on small-scale farms.

"There's an increase overall in the number of farms," Kunimoto said. And the small farm has played a big part in that, she said. "In 1997, 63 percent of the farms are under 10 acres, compared to 53 percent in 1964."

Policy makers have been meeting since January to work out a plan to preserve land zoned in agriculture, but it's a long process.

New homes have sprung up on land that a neighbor of Gary Weller used to farm in the Kamilonui Valley. Much of the farm land in the Hawai'i Kai valley is now surrounded by housing developments.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Help can't come fast enough for the farmers in Kamilonui Valley.

The sound of power tools from the construction of the nearby Leolani housing project disturbs the hush of the valley, where cool breezes rustle the corn stalks, banana leaves, green onions and nursery plants.

When the 60 homes are built, developer Schuler Homes will plant a landscape buffer between the farms and the homes. The buffer is supposed to block the noise of farming, the smell and the dust. For the length of the lease, Kamehameha Schools will support the farmers if problems arise from the proximity of homes, Hannahs said.

Still, the farmers worry what will happen if the new residents complain about their operations.

Robert Osgood, Hawai'i Agriculture Research Center vice president, said the Hawai'i Kai farmers could attempt to purchase their land in fee, start producing high-value products that bring in better money, or obtain special legislative protection from state or county government for greenbelt status.

But the farmers say the price of land in Hawai'i Kai is out of their league. And many government programs that offer loans or grants are unavailable because they typically require a 30-year term and the farmers don't have enough time left on their leases.

Since the last big housing boom in Hawai'i Kai began three years ago, the farmers have diligently attended community meetings. They are a quiet lot, not used to speaking in front of city officials or council members, but still they come to remind other residents that they derive their livelihood from the land.

But, they point out, they also provide food, jobs and green space.

Charles Nii, 87, has had to move his farm twice in the past 45 years, both times forced out by housing developments.

Nii has carved out a niche for himself as a hybrid hibiscus grower. He knows that further change may lie ahead for him and his son, Glenn. But he's not about to give up his farming lifestyle.

"We know we may have to move again if we don't have a lease," Nii said. "We might go to Waimanalo.

"There's enough sun there. But we plan to carry on the Nii Nursery wherever it will have to go."

Reach Suzanne Roig at sroig@honluluadvertiser.com or 395-8831.

• • •