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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 19, 2008

Governor should veto flawed farm-land bill

The attempts in recent years to decide which lands merit the important agricultural lands designation, a category that better insulates land from development, have stalled.

For anyone wanting to see the rejuvenation of a viable agricultural industry, there's an impulse to throw up one's hands and simply accept Senate Bill 2646 as the best to be expected from the Legislature.

That would be a mistake. SB 2646 passed in a flurry of last-minute dealmaking, with a provision insertion that gave a lot of lawmakers pause. It only passed 14-10 in the Senate. That's an early signal that suggests the need to take a deep breath and rethink the matter.

The bill represents, in part, an effort to provide farmers with some incentives aimed at encouraging agricultural operations. County governments have hesitated to begin the process of designating without such incentives in place.

Some of the components of SB 2646 are worthy, including the provison enabling the state to guarantee loans to farmers in support of agricultural projects. Tax credits also help, although some lawmakers are reasonably worried: These are refundable credits.

Additionally, a faulty provision that failed when proposed in a separate bill was inserted into this one. If landowners tag 85 percent of their property with the important agricultural lands designation, they can more readily urbanize the remaining 15 percent, without the usual Land Use Commission review.

Proponents say there are safeguards newly urbanized land still must conform to the county general plan but that may not be enough.

For one thing, the property being designated may not be truly "important" agricultural land: It doesn't have to meet all of the criteria. Specifically, it only has to have enough water for viable production and help maintain a "critical land mass" needed to sustain agriculture.

Is this the best way to protect our important agricultural land? Or is it principally a means to get urban projects fast-tracked?

It's unfortunate to delay passage of true incentives for farming another year. But it would be the wiser course in the long run for Gov. Linda Lingle to veto this bill, in the hope that next year lawmakers could come to a better consensus to benefit agriculture.