After more than 30 years, the city of Honolulu is finally moving to fulfill a constitutional mandate to protect Oahu’s important agricultural lands.

The Hawaii Constitution, as amended in 1978, requires the state to protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture and increase food security. To that end, the state was supposed to identify prime farmland, which couldn’t be reclassified for other uses without a two-thirds vote by the state Land Use Commission, and subsequently, the Legislature.

But the lands have never been identified. And critics say that in the meantime Hawaii has lost significant amounts of agricultural land to development.

The issue has become a major point of contention in the Hoopili case before the commission. Developer D.R. Horton is asking the commission to reclassify about 1,500 acres of prime agricultural land, now home to three farms, for its Hoopili development of 12,000 homes.

Opponents have argued that this land would have been designated “important agricultural lands,” if the state had fulfilled its mandate, which would have prevented the development. And last week, in testimony against Hoopili, former governors Ben Cayetano and John Waihee criticized the state’s failure to live up to the spirit and letter of the state Constitution.

Moving Forward on Oahu

Now, Honolulu’s recently appointed agricultural liaison, Laura Thielen, tells Civil Beat that a project to identify the lands will soon be underway. She is currently in the process of picking a consultant for the project and this year’s budget includes $200,000 for it, she said.

“We’ve put out a request for qualifications and received a number of submittals and are in the process of going through the selection,” she said.

The city has not allocated funds for the project for the coming fiscal year, but Thielen said that there was some flexibility in the mayor’s budget that could allow for additional funding.

The city of Honolulu’s efforts come after several years of complaints by county governments that the state’s directive amounted to an unfunded mandate. Laws were passed in 2005 and 2008 that gave guidance for implementing the constitutional amendment, but the Legislature only allocated $75,000 for all the counties to complete the work — an amount that county officials said didn’t even begin to cover the costs.

However, Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Agriculture Committee, told Civil Beat that if the counties really felt it was a priority then they would have found the money to do it long ago.

“I don’t think it ever came with the idea that the state was going to give them the money to do it,” he said.

Nishihara noted that there was never any penalty imposed in the law if the state or counties failed to identify the lands.

“That’s why we’re are probably still waiting for it,” he said.

Thielen said that the city of Honolulu wasn’t necessarily behind in the process of identifying lands. Landowners were given a July 2011 deadline to suggest parcels for the designation, in exchange for having other tracts of land fast-tracked for development. Castle & Cooke has recommended 900 acres of its land to be designated “important agricultural lands.” By contrast, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. has proposed 27,000 acres on Maui, and Parker Ranch has identified 57,000 acres, said Thielen. The lands have to be approved by the state Land Use Commission.

Now that the deadline for landowners has passed, she said, the city is moving forward in the process and that it’s a top priority.

“I think the whole purpose behind the constitutional amendment is how can we make agriculture work in Hawaii and improve our self sufficiency for now and for future generations,” she said.

And it’s not just about identifying the lands, said Thielen, who stressed that there’s a lot more involved when it comes to supporting agriculture.

“What it’s going to require is infrastructure to support agriculture, buffering land from encroachments, water to support operations over the long term, and public as well as private investment,” she said.

Kauai Blazes Ahead

To date, Kauai has been the only county to complete the identification of lands. That was after the county stepped in with $500,000 in funding.

The review began in 2008, and recommendations will soon be submitted to the state commission for final approval, according to Mary Daubert, the public information officer for the county of Kauai.

But the Big Island hasn’t even started. And it’s unclear if Maui County has begun the identification process — officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Margarita Hopkins, an economic development specialist in charge of the Big Island’s agricultural department, said that “the county doesn’t have money to start the process, nor do we have money coming forth from the state.”

She said that it would require sophisticated mapping software and physically surveying lands. While the county hasn’t done a cost estimate of the process, she estimated it might cost about $500,000.

“That money is just a guess,” she said, adding that the county was going to try to make use of existing resources to at least start the process.

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