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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 7, 2006

Agricultural land uses demand close look

Lawmakers made the right choice this week when they killed a bill involving homes on agricultural land that had been stimulated by the controversial Hokuli'a project on the Big Island.

But, as legislators readily admitted, the underlying issue of development of agricultural land remains unresolved.

The bill was energized by controversy over the Hokuli'a project, a luxury golf-residential development on marginal agricultural land near Kona.

A Circuit Court judge ruled the project could not go forward because it had not received Land Use Commission approvals to build the project on land designated for agriculture. Yet Hawai'i County had issued the necessary permits.

With a lawsuit simmering, legislators drafted a bill that would have cleared the way for Hokuli'a, as well as thousands of other homes permitted in agricultural districts around the state. The suit was settled and, while the overall issue remains alive, legislators wisely killed this year's bill.

Now the real work begins. It's time to take a more reasoned and long-range approach to land-use policies, particularly pertaining to agricultural land. It may well be that some marginal, unused agricultural land could be converted to more urban uses, whether for affordable housing or for luxury resorts.

But today's hodgepodge and haphazard approach needs to end.

If land is to be converted, it should be: clearly of no current or foreseeable agricultural use; contiguous, as much as possible, to existing urban uses; and in keeping with broad statewide land-use policies.

A statewide approach is needed, one that involves members of the agricultural and ranching communities. At the same time, these policies must be clear and rational so that developers understand the stakes on the front end and get answers in a timely fashion.

The agricultural-use designation as currently embedded in state law had two purposes: to encourage active agriculture and to act as a productive but natural buffer against urbanization.

If lawmakers are going to make important changes to this policy, they must have a well-reasoned and sensible approach. Hawai'i's residents will be left to live with these decisions for generations.