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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 23, 2006

Hokuli'a bill gains impetus

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Key state senators said yesterday they are inclined to move forward with a bill to resolve a dispute over the Hokuli'a luxury home project on the Big Island but only in the context of clarifying what type of housing is permissible on agricultural land.

Two Senate committees heard a bill yesterday that would allow Hokuli'a to proceed and would give counties more discretion over housing on marginal agricultural lands. The state would still have authority over prime or important agricultural lands.

Senators said the issues are much larger than Hokuli'a, which has been halted by the Circuit Court, and involve land-use policy on thousands of acres of agricultural land statewide. The agricultural designation has been considered a catch-all description by state planners and much of the land zoned for agriculture is not suitable for farming, while some of the land classified as marginal for agricultural can actually produce lucrative crops, such as Kona coffee on the Big Island.

"I know everyone wants to characterize it as a fix for Hokuli'a, but it encompasses a lot more," said Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u), the chairman of the Senate Water, Land and Agriculture Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said the state needs to determine which agricultural lands should be preserved for farming and which lands might be used for affordable housing or other purposes. The Legislature passed a bill last year, after nearly 30 years of delay, that would start the process of identifying important agricultural lands.

"I'm not inclined to move a bill that just fixes Hokuli'a. It has to fix agricultural subdivisions going forward in the future," Hanabusa said.

Kokubun and Hanabusa said they are likely to try to move the bill in committee votes scheduled for Monday.

The Hokuli'a project was stopped in 2003 after the court ruled that developers had not won approval from the state Land Use Commission for construction of housing on agricultural land. The developers, who obtained approval from Big Island officials, have appealed to the state Supreme Court.

A separate bill moving through the state House would allow the developers to finish Hokuli'a and would also protect other housing already built on agricultural land.

At the Senate hearing yesterday, much of the testimony centered on Hokuli'a.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, who supports the bills to save Hokuli'a, said he was disappointed that some critics have accused him of siding with business interests over agriculture.

"It is us in government who created this problem and it is up to us to fix it," Kim told senators.

Alan Murakami, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which has represented some of the plaintiffs who successfully sued to stop Hokuli'a, said counties already have the authority to restrict housing on agricultural land and told senators the new legislation was unnecessary. He asked senators not to tinker with a complex land- use system solely to resolve Hokuli'a.

"What you're effectively doing is taking a wrecking ball to knock out one apartment in one apartment building," Murakami said.

Some senators also seemed apprehensive about the idea that they were simply saving Hokuli'a for the courts.

"What we do here shouldn't be for Hokuli'a, it should be for the state of Hawai'i, which is what we represent," said Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kane'ohe, Kahuku).

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.