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

State must protect its agricultural lands

By Glenn I. Teves

There's a reason why agricultural land in Hawai'i was given protection under the state Constitution as a resource. Our forefathers knew that we would be vulnerable to food shortages, and one day there would be a land grab for this finite resource. We depend on events more than 3,000 miles away to dictate whether we receive our food or not; strikes and natural disasters could easily sever our connection to most of our food.

A myth floating around is that we only need a few thousand acres to produce all our food needs. Not true. Just growing our carbohydrate needs would require thousands of acres alone. Economic diversification is critical to the stabilization of our economy over the long term and also creation of a trade balance.

We bring in much of our goods, but what do we ship out? We are one of the weakest manufacturing states in the nation. We cannot continue to rely only on tourism, especially in these unfriendly times. And military construction is just a flash in the pan for now. The promotion of agriculture would be a viable alternative if given the opportunity, instead of the lip service it now receives.

The present situation of gentlemen's estates occupying thousands of acres of agricultural lands statewide without any agricultural activity is a result of non-enforcement of Hawai'i Revised Statutes Chapter 205, and in particular, Chapter 205-4.5, relating to permissible uses within the agriculture districts. The law is explicit in that farm dwellings are accessory to the farm. In other words, if you don't farm, you don't need a farm dwelling. This was a key consideration in the Hokuli'a case, among other issues related to farming.

The counties are responsible for upholding Chapter 205, but instead have chosen to "do their own thing." Some of the reasons they give for not upholding this law include the issue of home rule, staff shortages and the claim that "The Land Use Commission doesn't give us money to enforce these laws." These excuses have put the state, especially the Legislature, in a quandary, sparked by a plea from Hawai'i Mayor Harry Kim to help bail him out of this mess.

But the solutions are not easy to come by, since every solution will set a precedent and unlock these residents from any obligation to farm. This action, in turn, will affect legitimate adjacent agricultural activity by driving up land prices and by impacting on their ability to farm this land now and in the future due to urban encroachment. Agricultural production thrives on the fringe of urban development and, additionally, with a buffer between farms and other land-use activities.

In the pursuit of justice, the innocent are given their freedom and criminals are incarcerated. The present scenario proposed by the Legislature runs contrary to this basic concept. By grandfathering all the ag subdivisions in the state, you grandfather in a lot of problems. Now, these ag estates don't have to be sensitive to agriculture occurring nearby since they're no longer part of it and can now be part of the problem.

The Hokuli'a decision sends a wrong message that anything can be bought. We've dealt with this same mentality on Moloka'i where large landowners break land-use laws, pay the fine and move forward in their projects. This strategy is figured into the equation of their plan toward development of agricultural land. In development, it's more cost-effective to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

One solution to this critical crisis is obvious: the consolidation of land-use zoning and enforcement within the state departments and not the county. The counties have clearly shown that they cannot manage such an important responsibility and that money and development is more important than land-use laws.

The second solution is to allow the Supreme Court process to run its course. The land-use laws are sound, and it makes no sense to tinker with them without knowing the full ramifications of these changes. The laws are well designed, and a lot of thought and deliberation went into them, far more than has taken place at the Legislature in the last two to three years.

Who is benefiting from a change in the agricultural laws? Surely not the farmers, whom this law is supposed to protect.

In many instances, gentlemen's estates are second homes of affluent individuals. Many are not residents of Hawai'i and pay their income taxes to other states, if they pay taxes at all. Above all, most don't even vote in Hawai'i. So who are the legislators afraid of? These are not people who were born and raised in Hawai'i and vote. All the while, our local people are just waiting for an opportunity to afford to buy just one home, just sitting and waiting patiently, some out on the streets and working.

In closing, if legislators don't have a thorough understanding of agriculture, land use and the state Constitution as it relates to the protection of agricultural land as a resource, then it makes no sense to tinker around with something they know very little about, and change in one session what took a long time for our forward-thinking forefathers to create.

Glenn I. Teves is county extension agent for the University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, Cooperative Extension Service on Moloka'i. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.