Legislature wraps 2008
by Nathan Eagle – The Garden Island
The state Legislature wrapped up its 2008 session yesterday at the Capitol building in Honolulu by tying the final bows on several bills directly impacting Kaua‘i residents.
Hawai‘i lawmakers passed legislation that among other things mandates solar water heaters on new homes, provides agricultural land use incentives and gives negotiating power to cabin leaseholders at Waimea Canyon and Koke‘e state parks.
Senate Bill 644, introduced by Kaua‘i Democratic Sen. Gary Hooser, is a landmark measure that prohibits issuance of a building permit after Dec. 31, 2009, for single-family residences without a solar water heater system.
It also directs the state Public Utilities Commission to establish standards for solar water heating units, creates a variance process and cuts income tax credits for the renewable energy systems.
“Solar water heating is cost effective at any location in the Hawaiian Islands under current conditions,” state Rep. Mina Morita, D-14th District, said in her floor speech. “A solar water heater mandate in new home construction will effectively shift from a government subsidy via tax credits to a required investment by the private sector that will result in greater benefits to the public at large through the prudent investment in this type of renewable energy-saving device.”
With residential utility rates at 41 cents per kilowatt-hour on Kaua‘i, a solar water system would be paid back in 2.8 years, the representative said.
A family of four on Kaua‘i would be putting some $150 per month in their pockets from the savings in their electricity bill for the next 12.2 years for a total savings of $21,960, Morita said.
Currently, only one in four homes in the state have a solar water heater. The bill was amended several times to address concerns from builders, the solar industry and utility companies.
“We owe it to future generations of homeowners an energy and money saving device to put more disposable income in their pockets,” Morita said. “And, we owe it to our children and grandchildren the promise of a clean, renewable and sustainable energy future.”
County Councilman Tim Bynum said he welcomes the legislation, but recognized the significance of government imposing such a requirement.
“It shouldn’t be taken lightly,” he said. “But the way circumstances are globally, with an energy crisis and dependence on off-island fuel sources, the solar energy bill makes sense. I’m cognizant of the increased cost, but rolled into a 30-year mortgage it is paid off quickly and reduces costs to residents.”
Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawai‘i Chapter, said in a news release earlier this week that the state is “the Saudi Arabia of sun.”
“Every house in the state should be tapping into this free power,” he said. “Passing the solar roofs measure is the single biggest step the Legislature can take this year to increase Hawai‘i’s energy security.”
Senate Bill 644 passed the House unanimously; it passed the Senate 23-2.
• An incentive to urbanize
The bill was part of a power play between the two chambers earlier this week. At one point, Mikulina said the bill was held hostage for a measure related to agriculture.
Senate Bill 2646 provides incentives and protections to establish and sustain viable agricultural operations on important agricultural lands.
It offers tax credits, loan guarantees and land use reclassification privileges to residents with property qualifying as important agricultural land. The Legislature identified the criteria for designating such land in 2005.
Bynum said he submitted testimony this week opposing Senate Bill 2646 in part because he believes O‘ahu lawmakers failed to thoroughly weigh the legislation’s impact on Kaua‘i.
He remained particularly concerned yesterday over the section in the bill that allows landowners with property qualifying as important agricultural land to petition the commission for a reclassification of land in the agricultural district to the rural, urban or conservation district.
The bill provides three rules such petitioners must follow: the land sought to be reclassified to the rural, urban or conservation district is within the same county as the land sought to be designated as important agricultural lands; if the reclassification of the land is proposed to the urban district, that reclassification to urban is consistent with the relevant county development or community development plans; and at least 85 percent of the total acreage sought to be designated or reclassified is important agricultural land.
Bynum said this poses a problem for Kaua‘i because many community development plans are not current.
“The county of Kaua‘i should decide land use issues,” he said, noting the different land use situations among the islands. “If the state’s going to take away our prerogative then we lose our ability to control our destiny.”
Mikulina said under an expedited declaratory ruling petition, Senate Bill 2646 allows landowners to qualify for the 15 percent reclassification “gift” without regard to whether actual agriculture is feasible on it or whether the important agricultural land conforms to a county’s general, development and community plans.
While the Sierra Club director referred to the bill as a land development grab, the state farm bureau called it critical to the future of the agricultural industry.
“SB 2646 is an economic stimulus package that has greater recognition and importance as our economy continues to be hit by many of these challenges,” Hawai‘i Farm Bureau Federation executive director Alan Takemoto said. “We need this kind of legislation that is positive and forward thinking in keeping our farmers viable during these tough economic times.”
Senate Bill 2646 passed the House with 18 members voting “No”; it passed the Senate 14-10.
Morita and Hooser voted “No.” State Reps. James Tokioka, D-15th District, and Roland Sagum, D-16th District, voted “Yes.”
“I liked 80 percent of the bill,” Tokioka said, noting his concern for the section related to the reclassification. “That part scares people who want to save ag lands, but it’s not a mandate or guarantee that will turn it into urban or rural.”
A good part of the bill, he said, is that farmers will have an opportunity to get tax credits for employee housing to keep their land in agriculture.
• Protecting a historic
House Bill 2872, which passed with strong support from the Kaua‘i delegation, will provide a one-time process for leasing cabins and lots at Waimea Canyon and Koke‘e state parks.
It requires the Board of Land and Natural Resources to first “negotiate directly with all existing leaseholders of recreation-residence use leases in locations at state parks or state forest reserves in counties with a population of less than 100,000, for lease renewals.”
Although the description fails to refer directly to Waimea Canyon and Koke‘e state parks, Sagum said Kaua‘i is the only county that falls under the prescribed population requirement.
The bill also creates a Koke‘e state park advisory council and requires the renegotiated leases to be for a period not less than 20 years and based on market rates.
If the current leaseholder fails to agree to the renegotiated lease, it expires on Dec. 31 and shall be auctioned by the board.
There is a mix of some 25 vacant cabins and lots that will be auctioned off in the initial go-round, Sagum said.
The legislation opens up the public auction process first to bidders who reside on Kaua‘i, then to state residents and finally to nonresidents.
“We certainly wanted to make sure that people with a lot of money from the Mainland don’t try to horde one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Tokioka said. “We’re very grateful for all the people on Kaua‘i that took the time to educate us and to educate the Neighbor Island and O‘ahu legislators.”
The state has granted permits for recreational-residences in Koke‘e and Waimea Canyon state parks for decades. There are currently some 140 leases in the two parks.
“We’re grateful to Senator Hooser and Representative Sagum for keeping the dialog open and pushing this toward a win-win solution,” said Dan Hempey, an attorney representing leaseholders who filed a lawsuit against the state. “This bill will prevent the DLNR from evicting the historic community from Koke‘e and it will also allow Kaua‘i citizens to bid on many remaining cabins and lots at auction. Direct negotiations, in this case, are consistent with historic preservation and we hope the governor signs the bill.”
The issue of just compensation for the 27 cabin owners which filed suit to challenge the state’s taking ownership of the cabins remains pending in the Intermediate Court of Appeals, he added.
County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said the bill is important because it prevents auction speculation that could take most of those cabins and access to the forest out of reach of Kaua‘i residents.
House Bill 2872 unanimously passed the House. The official Senate vote was unavailable at press time.
For more information, visit www.capitol.hawaii.gov.
• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or email@example.com