An urbanization bill passed stealthily by the state Legislature threatens to dramatically change the landscape of Hawai‘i, exposing farmlands statewide to unbridled development. Cloaked as an incentive for “agricultural protection,” SB 2646 would encourage land speculation and sprawling development on existing agricultural land with little public input. Legislative leaders in the House, knowing how unpopular this policy would be, had to resort to backroom political games to get their way. True farmland protection doesn’t come from giving away the farm, but from genuine leadership, promoting sustainability and food security for Hawai‘i.
Senate Bill 2646 allows large landowners to fast-track reclassification of 15 percent of agricultural lands to the urban or rural districts in exchange for labeling 85 percent of lands as Important Agricultural Lands (IAL). This contradictory 85-15 “incentive” formula opens the floodgates for rural developments with little regard for community input or state and county land-use planning. Private landowners can dictate public land use policy by simply requesting a declaratory order from the Land Use Commission, short-circuiting government oversight and denying local communities the ability to protect their rights.
This bill could allow the urbanization of nearly 300,000 acres (15 percent of existing ag lands) — or almost three times the total urbanized land on O‘ahu. While some advocates of this measure have lamented the urbanization of some 40,000 acres of Hawai‘i farmland over the past quarter century, SB 2646 puts the bulldozers in overdrive. Seven times that amount of land stands to be developed.
This measure also thwarts the community planning process by failing to require rural reclassifications to conform with existing county plans. This gaping loophole will fuel suburban sprawl, luxury fake-farm subdivisions, and mega golf courses allowed under rural classification but prohibited under ag classification — belying the Legislature’s professed commitment to “sustainability.”
Consider how the process may unfold under this bill. A large landowner wants to develop a luxury project on Moloka‘i for golfers and second-home buyers. But their plans would require public review and could face community opposition if they went through the existing process. Under this proposed law, the landowner would just have to find acreage anywhere in Maui County where they have no present intent to develop, and ask that the lands be designated as “Important Agricultural Lands” (which also provides them millions in new tax credits). As long as they stick to the “85-15” formula, they are free to develop their project — with two houses per acre — without public oversight or adherence to the island’s community plan. Communities who are trying to preserve the agricultural nature of their area could be blindsided by an IAL designation a hundred miles away.
To pass this blatantly pro-development bill, the legislature cast aside the democratic process and its own rules.
Led by Speaker Calvin Say and Rep. Clifton Tsuji, the House inserted the “85-15” scheme into a popular agricultural protection bill during the final night of Conference Committee. The Senate had already twice rejected the scheme when it came to them as a stand-alone measure. Conference Committee rules require an open hearing on all proposed legislation, but the new language had never previously appeared in prior drafts of SB 2646 heard by the Senate or the House. When some Senators balked at passing the cannibalized SB 2646, House leadership forced it to a floor vote by arbitrarily threatening to hold hostage the popular Solar Roofs measure, SB 644. Ultimately, a sharply divided (14-10) Senate passed SB 2646.
There is a better way. We need not give away the farm in order to protect important agricultural lands. If the Legislature is serious about achieving statewide food security, they should require the state to designate important ag lands without relying on large landowners to cash in on the 15 percent windfall created by SB 2646. By bringing landowners, farmers, and the counties to the table, the state would have the input it needs to add a layer of protection to agricultural lands statewide. Creating a comprehensive solution is much wiser than putting the large landowners in the driver’s seat of statewide planning.
Hawai‘i needs policies that protect, not urbanize, our ag lands. We need statewide scrutiny of land-use laws and stricter enforcement by the state Land Use Commission and individual counties. We need greater ethics and accountability in the legislature. We need sustainable agriculture to feed ourselves, not sprawling subdivisions for malihini millionaires. If we allow backdoor deregulation to create incentives for large landowners to destroy prime farmlands, the Hawai‘i of the future will be a paved paradise perpetuated not in righteousness but in greed and thoughtless development.
Please ask our governor to exercise leadership for all of Hawai‘i, including future generations, and veto this monumentally flawed bill.
For more information on SB 2646 and how legislators voted, please see www.hi.sierraclub.org/rural
• This viewpoint drafted by the following: Kaua‘i County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura; Donna Wong, executive director of Hawai‘i’s Thousand Friends; Walter Ritte, coordinator of Hui Ho‘opakele Aina; Alan Murakami, Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.; Isaac Moriwake, Earthjustice; Jeff Mikulina, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawai’i Chapter; Napua Leong, Molokai ‘opio; Keone Kealoha, executive director of Malama Kaua‘i; Karen Holt, executive director of Moloka‘i Community Service Council; Lynn DeCoite, owner of L&R Sweet Potato Farm, Moloka‘i; Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land; Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow Foundation.