Senate kills bill to allow housing on ag lands
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
Unable to agree on a potentially explosive change to state land-use policy, a state Senate committee yesterday killed a bill that would have recognized luxury homes and other housing on agricultural land as legal.
The bill initially had been seen as a lifeline for developers of the Hokuli'a luxury home project on the Big Island. But after a lawsuit blocking the project was settled in March, it turned into a more complex and passionate discussion of the conflict between housing and agriculture statewide.
State Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u), chairman of the Senate Water, Land and Agriculture Committee, said lawmakers would try again next year to clarify the legal status of thousands of homes already built and help counties determine what type of housing should be allowed on agricultural land.
"So it is something that we will work on for next session because, frankly, I don't think the problem disappears," said Kokubun, who had insisted from the start that the issue was broader than Hokuli'a.
Environmentalists had argued the bill was unnecessary because counties and the state Land Use Commission already have the ability to regulate what kind of housing projects are appropriate for agricultural land. The state Legislature also approved bills last session that are expected to help the state identify important agricultural land and study land-use policy on rural land.
Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club's Hawai'i chapter, had warned at a 3 1/2-hour hearing on Monday that the bill could further open agricultural land to international speculators.
"I think that sanity prevailed," he said yesterday.
Other environmentalists said they hoped counties would be more careful about approving homes on agricultural land in cases where builders clearly have no interest in farming. The Hokuli'a project, for example, had been developed and marketed as a luxury golf retreat.
"I hope this will lead to a meaningful discussion on gentleman's estates," said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land.
But the state Office of Planning had told the Senate it would be helpful to give counties more guidance on what type of housing can be built on agricultural land. The debate was also a reminder to lawmakers that the agricultural designation has often been used by planners as a "catch-all" and includes land not suitable for farming.
On the Big Island, county officials have defended their approval of Hokuli'a and have said the uncertainty leaves a shadow over people who live or have bought property on agricultural land with the understanding that homes were legal.
Andy Levin, executive director to Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, said the Hokuli'a settlement may have taken away some of the urgency behind the bill. "We will need to come back again next year to try to resolve the general issue," he said.
Levin disagreed with people who have speculated for months that the bill was designed to pressure the activists who sued to stop Hokuli'a into settling with the developers. Some lawmakers had said they hoped the bill would lead to a settlement, and some people involved in the settlement talks had questioned the timing behind the bill.
The settlement allowed the developers to continue the project in exchange for a $100 million community benefits package that includes a road to help relieve traffic congestion in Kona.
"It was not a Hokuli'a bailout bill," Levin said.
State Sen. Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), said it probably would have been easier for lawmakers to stay out of the challenging issue but said it was important to hear from the dozens of people who submitted testimony and to continue to look for answers.
"The bottom line is we support our farmers. We support agriculture and we support our rural communities," Hooser said.
Reach Derrick DePledge at email@example.com.