Honolulu officials are poised to approve a long-planned development that would replace nearly 1,300 acres of prime farmland in West Oahu.

No one really knows if this is a problem for a state that ships in at least 85 percent of its food from the mainland, because no one really knows how much usable farmland is left. The most recent city study was conducted by a consultant who has also worked for the project developer.

The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee is expected to vote this week on a rezoning that would pave the way for Hoopili, an 11,750-home development envisioned between Ewa and Kapolei. The issue would go next to the full Council.

The committee heard testimony Monday night in Kapolei regarding the project by developer D.R. Horton. The main criticism of Hoopili is its removal of land from agricultural production.

Hoopili Rail Construction Kapolei West Oahu DR Horton Aloun Farms

A sign advertising Aloun Farms sits on farmland in September 2014 that could be developed into a new residential community known as Hoopili. In the distance is the city’s under-construction rail line, which runs through the proposed development.

Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

In 2011, the city paid about $45,000 for a study that concluded there are tens of thousands of acres of high-quality farmland outside the urban growth boundary (Hoopili is inside) — more than enough land for the island to grow 100 percent of its produce demand.

But the study didn’t take into account how much of that Oahu land — although it may be zoned for agriculture — is being used for other purposes, such as luxury housing or solar farms. It also relied on outdated farmland ratings and didn’t specifically evaluate key characteristics such as the availability of water and the slope of land.

“We should always keep in mind that every bit of land that we convert, there’s no return. There’s no going back.” — Earl Yamamoto, state Department of Agriculture

The analysis was conducted by Bruce Plasch, a consultant for D.R. Horton.

The state Department of Agriculture doesn’t have much better data. Earl Yamamoto, a planner at the department, said that the agency hasn’t recovered from budget cuts during the 2009 financial downturn, when it lost employees who tracked statewide agricultural production.

And even though the state Office of Planning recently analyzed the amount of available farmland on Oahu, the agency only took into account the slope of the land, not whether it was developed or irrigated.

A constitutional amendment approved in 1978 calls on the state to identify “important agricultural lands.” But the city and the state still haven’t finished doing so.

Despite concerns about Hoopili’s impact on agriculture, Zoning and Planning Committee Chairman Ikaika Anderson has said that he supports the project because it’s in line with the Oahu General Plan.

But the lack of data makes it difficult for policymakers to figure out how much food Oahu is producing and what farmland needs to be conserved to improve food sustainability in Hawaii.

“With our rapidly dwindling resources here, we can’t pretend we have endless acres as we used to think back in the 1960s,” Yamamoto said. “We should always keep in mind that every bit of land that we convert, there’s no return. There’s no going back.”

Gauging Food Self-Sufficiency

Bruce Plasch of Plasch Econ Pacific LLC has conducted multiple studies for the city and state analyzing agricultural economics.

He was also hired by D.R. Horton to testify in favor of Hoopili when it sought approval of the project from the state Land Use Commission in 2009.

Two years later, the city hired Plasch to conduct an island-wide analysis of the amount of farmland available on Oahu, as well as the progress toward greater food self-sufficiency.

“Land has not been a limiting factor for Hawaii agriculture for decades, nor is land expected to be a limiting factor in the foreseeable future.” — Bruce Plasch, in his 2011 report on Oahu farmland

While the state generally has a goal of increasing the amount of locally grown food, its 2050 sustainability plan suggests that by 2020, 30 percent of food consumed could be grown locally and 85 percent of fruits and vegetables could be grown locally.

Plasch’s analysis concluded that Oahu has more than enough land to become completely food self-sufficient for fruits and vegetables.

“Given the large release of farmland from plantation agriculture, land has not been a limiting factor for Hawaii agriculture for decades, nor is land expected to be a limiting factor in the foreseeable future,” his report said.

Despite working for D.R. Horton before and after he conducted the city study, Plasch says he stands by his results and that they were not influenced by developers. In addition to D.R. Horton, Plasch has also worked for landowners Castle & Cooke and Campbell Estate.

The Plasch study didn’t take into account key aspects that affect the availability of farmland, such as irrigation or the gradient of the land.

Farmers tend the fields below elevated rail after HART officials proclaimed finishing over 1 mile.  3 dec 2014. photograph Cory Lum

Farmworkers tend a field below the elevated rail line in West Oahu.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Plasch said that those aspects largely correlate with the state’s farmland ratings. The rating systems were established in 1972 and 1978 and were based on the needs of plantation crops such as pineapple and sugar cane. The types of crops farmed in Hawaii have changed since then as agriculture has diversified, and some areas that were irrigated may not be anymore. Still, Plasch contends that the ratings are adequate.

His analysis also didn’t take into account land that had been converted for other uses such as gentlemen’s estates or solar farms. It didn’t address whether long-term leases were available or affordable for farmers.

“I think the reality is no one really has a very good grasp.” — Robert Harris, former director of the Sierra Club

The state Office of Planning estimated this year that there are about 67,000 acres of agricultural land left on Oahu with a slope of 20 percent or less. That’s about 17.5 percent of the island.

Yet the state’s analysis was similarly missing data on how much of that land may have already been taken out of farming while retainings its “agriculture” classification. The agency is in the process of figuring that out.

Robert Harris, former director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group that has challenged the Hoopili project in court, called the lack of precise data about the availability of farmland “alarming.”

“My concern is that there are reports and there are studies that are done, but when you look at them, they don’t seem to have that scrutiny or that level of expertise that normally you would associate with this kind of discussion,” said Harris. “I think the reality is no one really has a very good grasp.”

Looking at the Issue Statewide

The social investment firm Ulupono Initiative has been doing its own research into the issue on a statewide level.

Kyle Datta from Ulupono Initiative said the organization spent a year reviewing data to figure out how much prime, irrigated farmland is available statewide and how much is necessary for the state to make headway toward feeding local residents.

The designation of “prime” farmland is based on the state’s 1978 agricultural ratings system, but the organization also analyzed how much of the land is actually irrigated, creating a more accurate picture of the amount of farmland that’s ready for use.

“Being dependent on food grown on the Big Island is better than California or Mexico, but it still requires that the food is packaged and shipped.” — Doug Cole, North Shore Community Land Trust

Datta estimated that an additional 19,000 acres of prime farmland are needed — in addition to the current 9,000 acres in production — to help Hawaii reach 80 percent self-sufficiency for fruits and vegetables.

About 13,000 of those acres would need to be irrigated land.

Datta said another 9,000 acres of prime, irrigated farmland is needed for dairies along with 6,000 acres of prime, irrigated ranch land. That’s 34,000 acres of total farmland needed statewide to make significant headway toward improving food security for fruits and vegetables, dairy products and meat.

Statewide, there’s currently only 39,000 acres of prime, irrigated, unused agricultural land, Datta said. About 16,000 acres are on Lanai, and he thinks it’s unlikely that a large part of that could be converted to actual farming.

Local produce for sale at the Pearlridge Farmer's Market held near Sears. Saturday.  13 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Local produce for sale at the Pearlridge Farmer’s Market last month.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On Oahu, there’s “well under 5,000 acres of prime irrigated land that’s not already in use,” Datta said.

“On Oahu, affordable land and water is scarce compared to demand from farmers,” he said. “There’s not enough land on Oahu for farmers, that’s for sure.”

That makes it important for the state not only to conserve land, but to invest in improving irrigation systems to make it usable, he said.

Datta also thinks that although there is prime land on the neighbor islands, it’s important to preserve farmland on Oahu because that’s where many farmers live.

Doug Cole from the North Shore Community Land Trust agrees.

“We have a million people on Oahu now and I think you eliminate a lot of the transport logistics and costs by just growing food on Oahu,” he said. “Being dependent on food grown on the Big Island is better than California or Mexico, but it still requires that the food is packaged and shipped.”

His organization doesn’t have a position on Hoopili, but he questions taking land that’s productive out of agriculture on the premise that there’s other potentially productive land.

“If that land is so available, why don’t we see farmers getting an opportunity to go in and farm it?” Cole said. “You can cite that acreage … but if farmers don’t have access to that land, then it has the potential of fulfilling that need but something more needs to happen.”

On Oahu, there’s “well under 5,000 acres of prime irrigated land that’s not already in use.” — Kyle Datta, Ulupono Initiative

At Monday evening’s hearing, D.R. Horton vice president Cameron Nekota told City Council members that the project will preserve about 200 acres of agricultural land in West Oahu.

The company reconfigured its original development plan to take into account concerns about the loss of farmland, and is now promoting agriculture as an active part of the planned community.

Nekota showed city officials a commercial with Shin Ho of Ho Farms praising how agriculture is being incorporated into the development and advertising the “Grown in Hoopili” brand of tomatoes.

The official Hoopili website even has a recipe book that the company says shows “D.R. Horton Hawaii’s commitment to ensuring that farming continues and thrives in the area.”

Nekota told council members that the company has also secured 500 acres of land in central Oahu where displaced farmers may relocate.

He also emphasized that D.R. Horton chose the land because it’s within the city’s urban growth boundary. He has previously said that that food self-sufficiency is a separate issue.

Opponents of the Hoopili development disagree.

“The issue of food security is not just a feel-good issue,” said Anthony Aalto, head of the Oahu chapter of the Sierra Club. “The bottom line is that Hoopili is some of the most productive land in the state … The idea that we could just pave over it is total madness.”

Note: The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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