The debate swirling around a proposed community development in Central Oahu is just the latest example of the tension between growth and farmland preservation in Hawaii.

Castle and Cooke‘s proposed development at Koa Ridge and Waiawa calls for 5,000 housing units with businesses, healthcare facilities and schools on former pineapple land between Mililani and Waipio.

But before bulldozers can scrape the fields, the Hawaii Land Use Commission soon must decide whether to convert 766 acres from the agricultural district, where law does not allow development, to the urban district, where it does. More than 28,000 acres of prime farmland have been lost statewide since 1972.

The Oahu case is an example of how the state lacks a hard and fast land management plan, more than 30 years after Hawaii voters made clear that they wanted one.

Instead, the state still evaluates proposals on their individual merits. Officials weigh the benefits of a proposed development against the cost of losing a particular piece of agricultural land, keeping in mind the vision of the Hawaii State Plan.

That ad hoc approach raises concerns from some who believe that Hawaii’s policies are too loose and do not provide enough protection for farmland. With an eye on world events, Hawaii has increasingly touted moving toward food and energy self-sufficiency and away from imported goods. It’s unclear how much land would be needed to achieve those goals.

At the same time, the desire to save farmland can conflict with the need for affordable housing. Hawaii’s high housing prices are in part driven by a scarcity of land and increasing the supply, as is proposed at Koa Ridge, could help hold costs down.

“There’s no easy answer when you have a complex problem” like this, Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter Director Robert Harris said, referring to the tension between preservation and growth. “It gets increasingly complex as you drill down into it, so it needs aggressive planning, which we plainly do not have.”

State leaders anticipated these issues during the Constitutional Convention of 1978, after which voters approved the identification and designation of Important Agricultural Lands. After 27 stagnant years with gradual loss of agricultural land, parcel by parcel, the Legislature in 2005 created a law to begin this process. Act 183 started the ball rolling toward an overarching structure for preservation. But the timeline extends to 2021, 43 years after the voters spoke.

“We’re still very much at the beginning of that process, and we don’t know how that’s going to come out, but at least we can say that’s it’s started,” Hawaii Department of Agriculture Chairperson Sandra Lee Kunimoto told Civil Beat.

She said Act 183 is imperfect and further action is needed to make clear that important ag lands are to be preserved in perpetuity, scaring off “development and speculation pressure” that keeps land values so high that farming cannot provide enough income to cover a mortgage. The failure to establish a policy makes preservation today that much more important, she said.

“We don’t know what the future brings, but we would be cutting off our options if we don’t make sure the land is there for us,” Kunimoto said. “I think the takeaway is that once land is developed, it’s gone forever for agriculture, so it is very important to weigh these factors carefully because there’s no going back to claim them again, and yes, every piece does count.”

Castle and Cooke President Harry Saunders disagreed, saying there is an abundance of agricultural land that currently lays fallow. He said the limit to farming in Hawaii is not a lack of land but a lack of willing farmers and the high costs of fertilizer, irrigation and labor.

Bruce Barrett, Executive Vice President, Residential Operations, said Koa Ridge is situated between numerous other urban developments, and that developing it was not the same as urbanizing 500 acres on Oahu’s North Shore. The Castle and Cooke executives pointed to the need for more housing, and said young families have been forced to leave Hawaii not because of the lack of farmland but because of the lack of housing and the lack of jobs.

The Koa Ridge petition to the Land Use Commission is not unique. Because only 5 percent of Hawaii’s 4 million acres are in the urban district, developers have asked the commission to amend agricultural district boundaries many times.

In a submission to the commission, Castle and Cooke noted that the number of agricultural acres in the Land Study Bureau Classes A and B — the most productive land — was reduced by 21 percent on Oahu and 14 percent statewide between 1972 and 2010. More than 28,000 acres have been converted, but 175,000 acres remain.

“Do we believe that all ag lands should be taken away? No, of course not. We selected the area that made the most sense to take out of ag into urban,” Saunders said, adding that he had the corporation’s and the state’s interests at heart. “We think it’s appropriate and that there’s more than enough.”

Castle and Cooke is on the verge of an agreement that would move the site’s current agricultural tenants to a similar parcel on nearby Dole land. And the commission, which closed its public hearings on Koa Ridge in late April, could require that any urbanization be offset with an easement that preserves a comparable parcel of farmland in perpetuity.

“That’s not a long-term plan, that’s a ‘it’s-better-than-nothing’ type of approach,” the Sierra Club’s Harris told Civil Beat. Harris said stricter land use policies like one in place in Portland, Ore., restrict development to urban areas, revitalizing older neighborhoods. Such an approach would be costlier for developers and costlier for residents — at least in the short run.

“We don’t want to be trading our future simply to create some construction jobs today,” Harris said. “Our economy is based on construction, but at some point that has to end. We’re going to simply run out of land. Do we stop it today, or do we wait until there’s no land left?”

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