Neil Abercrombie was against the controversial Hoopili development before he was for it, according to environmentalists who said they met with him before the 2010 election.

The candidate Abercrombie told environmental groups that he opposed the Ewa project during his campaign for governor, according to some of those present at a meeting they say took place at his campaign headquarters.

They told Civil Beat Abercrombie pledged to make sure that Hoopili — a master-planned community of 11,750 homes and five schools — would never happen.

That isn’t Abercrombie’s position today. Last week, his administration publicly threw its support behind the development, which would displace 1,500 acres of prime agricultural land and force one of the state’s largest farms to move.

Abercrombie spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said that Abercrombie supported Hoopili. But she would not confirm whether the governor did indeed tell the environmental groups that he was opposed to Hoopili during his campaign or whether he had changed his position.

“The Governor has always been sympathetic to the needs of agriculture and workforce housing. His position on those areas are laid out in his New Day Plan,” she wrote by email. “His position has been and remains in favor of agriculture and workforce housing. This project addresses both of those areas.”

The Abercrombie administration’s support of Hoopili last week disappointed environmental groups and was a reversal of his predecessor’s position. The administration of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle opposed Hoopili, testifying that it would significantly erode past protections of Oahu’s most fertile ag lands.

A Promise Remembered

“Abercrombie promised that it wouldn’t go forward,” said Kioni Dudley, president of Friends of Makakilo, which has been working for several years to stop the development.

The governor’s pledge was confirmed by others at the meeting, including Donna Wong and Tom Coffman of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends; Pearl Johnson, chair of the League of Women Voters; and Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club.

“He did say something to the effect of, under his watch, Hoopili would not go forward,” said Harris.

The meeting took place while Abercrombie was soliciting support for his campaign. It was requested by members of Save Oahu Farmlands, an umbrella group of environmental organizations concerned with ag issues, said Dudley. He said the group asked for the meeting to help it decide whom to support for governor and that Hoopili was at the top of the agenda. They had previously met with Duke Aiona, who Dudley said was supportive. But Abercrombie was more so.

“We wanted to know what his view was for the future of agriculture, and we were quite enthused by his enthusiasm,” said Dudley.

The August, 2010 meeting was not related to the Sierra Club’s official endorsement of Abercrombie, which occurred a couple weeks earlier.

‘New Day’ Plan Doesn’t Mention Hoopili

Civil Beat reviewed the governor’s New Day Plan. The preservation and promotion of agriculture is a prominent theme.

“It is time for an Agricultural Renaissance in Hawaii,” his plan reads. It emphasizes the need to protect important agricultural lands and encourage local food production. About 80 percent to 90 percent of Hawaii’s food is imported, as opposed to 50 years ago, when it was 50 percent, according to the governor.

“Our dependency on imported food is a problem we ignore at our peril,” his New Day plan reads.

Abercrombie’s plan doesn’t mention Hoopili or address issues concerning private development. It does include plans to develop affordable housing on public lands by working with private developers. The model is one that he championed while in Congress for developing military housing.

D.R. Horton, Hoopili’s developer, has said that agriculture will be an important component of the project, which it promotes as the “first community to integrate smart, sustainable food production.”

Last week, Russell Kokubun, Abercrombie’s appointee as Agriculture chairman, testified in support of Hoopili. His statements in front of the state Land Use Commission, which is deliberating on whether to allow the project to proceed, was a boon to D.R. Horton. And it was a stinging blow to environmental groups who said they walked away from their meeting with Abercrombie confident that if elected his administration would oppose the project.

“He left us with the impression that he understood the importance of this ag land,” Wong said.

Kokubun, a former senator who has been a champion for agriculture and local food production, told commissioners that the department was satisfied with the developer’s sustainability plans and urban agricultural initiative. He said that there were some 2,250 acres of ag land on Oahu that could accommodate displaced farmers — namely, Aloun Farms, which produces 20 percent of the state’s local produce, according to the Sierra Club.

Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau and owner of Nalo Farms, also supports the development.

Kokubun’s testimony stands in sharp contrast to the Lingle administration’s strongly-worded opposition to the project in 2009.

Sandra Kunimoto, Kokubun’s predecessor, submitted written testimony warning that the development “would result in a loss of productive, high quality agricultural land on Oahu equal to 42 percent of the amount lost over the last eighteen years.”

Commissioners will decide whether to grant D.R. Horton’s petition to reclassify 1,500 acres of agricultural land for urban use in the coming months. It’s the second time the case is being heard by the commission. In 2009, Horton’s application was rejected because it lacked an adequate timeline for completing the development. Hoopili can’t move forward without the land reclassification.

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