Council defers ag land investigation

LIHUE — The Kauai County Council, by a 4-2 vote Wednesday, opted to revisit in two weeks a request for an investigation into what one council member says are numerous violations of county law by the island’s agrochemical industry and large landowners.

“I don’t think having another discussion on the resolution is going to preclude the mayor’s investigation,” Councilman Gary Hooser said.

Introduced by Councilman Tim Bynum, the resolution would establish a committee to investigate the implementation of county laws dealing with the dedication of land for agricultural use. The alleged violations include landowners, specifically Grove Farm Company, and their lessees failing to properly adjust real property taxes, resulting in what could be millions in unpaid liabilities, as well as operating without required conservation plans.

Council Chair Jay Furfaro and Councilman Mel Rapozo cast the two dissenting votes, while Councilman Ross Kagawa was not present for the vote.

Rapozo said a lot of allegations were being tossed around and that he felt the county should be given appropriate time to look into them.

“This is not a judge,” he said of the seven-member council. “This is not a courtroom.”

While the county’s investigation is currently focused on three specific properties, all owned by Grove Farm or its subsidiaries and leased to biotech seed companies, Bynum is concerned there are more.

“We clearly need an independent group that has the expertise to do this inquiry and to determine the scope, and then you let the cards fall where they may,” he said. “But to delay until Dec. 17 is an attempt to see that an investigation is never launched, or at least while this council has any say about it.”

One thing made clear during Wednesday’s meeting is that the county recognizes a potential problem. Managing Director Nadine Nakamura said the administration is taking the matter seriously and is committed to a thorough review.

The mayor’s administration requested to delay the matter until December.

“We have put together a pretty comfortable timeline that we can meet that involves giving the landowner due process, to answer some questions, to conduct interviews with the adjoining landowners, to clarify potential rollback taxes, to finalize the investigation and to meet with the council about the next step,” she said.

Tempers flared during Wednesday’s long discussion. Bynum attempted twice to read a Sept. 25 letter from Deputy County Attorney Mona Clark, who has been tasked with leading the county’s investigation, to Grove Farm Senior Vice President Michael Tresler.

In that letter she writes that it has come to the county’s attention that “Grove Farm failed to petition the county for authorization to change the agricultural use specified in its agricultural dedications” on two of the three properties in question. On the third property, an ag dedication was approved “though the file does not contain any documentation that the lands had been in continuous and substantial agricultural use prior to the dedication.”

Clark has requested detailed information from Grove Farm for each of the parcels, including documents showing approved uses, GIS maps and licenses and leases in effect.

Each time Bynum tried to read the letter — a public document — he was interrupted by County Attorney Al Castillo, forcing the meeting into recess.

Castillo said the allegations being raised are “serious,” the investigation is ongoing and that certain material should be discussed in executive session.

Tresler testified that Grove Farm has “nothing to hide,” pays its fair share in taxes and that its lessees, to his knowledge, have obtained conservation plans for their operations.

He said it was “disappointing” to show up and be accused of things that were not true.

“I hear this rhetoric about millions of dollars,” he said. “Yeah, it is correct. We’ve paid millions of dollars to the county when we legally had the right to dedicate those lands and not pay those taxes.”

Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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