KO OLINA — The day started at a standing-room-only meeting in a fourth-floor conference room in downtown Honolulu. After years of debate, the Hawaii Land Use Commission approved a project that will turn nearly 800 acres of productive farmland in Central Oahu into a new town with homes for thousands of families.

A few hours later, in a ballroom a stone’s throw from the ocean in Ko Olina, hundreds of farmers talked about the many challenges they face as they try to provide the islands with food: a shortage of water, the need for a steady market, the high costs of labor. They discussed collaboration, attracting young farmers, sustainable practices and moving agriculture into the future.

What they didn’t talk about was a lack of available farmland.

At the Land Use Commission Thursday morning, the conversion of 768 acres from the Agricultural District to the Urban District was lamented by conservationists.

“Castle & Cooke’s plan for Koa Ridge is the epitome of urban sprawl,” Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club said in a press release. “When we’re importing 85 to 90% of our state’s food, it’s absurd to pave over land that has been consistently and profitably providing food for Oahu.”

The Sierra Club’s concerns were echoed by some of the commissioners, such as Normand Lezy, who said he and his colleagues are sensitive to the fact that when quality agricultural land — the acres in question contained soil rated “A” and “B” — is paved over, it’s unlikely to ever return to farming.

Despite those concerns and others raised by Commissioner Lisa Judge, the eight members of the panel present declined to impose any serious conditions — unless the requirement that Castle and Cooke construct emergency siren warning poles before the first residents move in is considered serious.

Panel Rejects Easement Requirement

Rejected was a proposal from the Hawaii Office of Planning that would have required Castle and Cooke to create agricultural easements on other parcels it owns to make up for the loss of the farmland. Judge, a commissioner from Maui, said she couldn’t support imposing such a condition because she felt it was outside of the commission’s purview. Instead, she hopes that Castle and Cooke will voluntarily designate land as Important Ag Land — to be preserved for agriculture — before the end of the year.

Lezy agreed, saying that conditions like an agricultural easement would be better dealt with in a “more deliberative process” at the Hawaii Legislature. “I don’t think we can do this. I don’t think it’s for us to do,” he said.

The commission did take one step to limit what would have otherwise been a blanket approval. Because the second phase of the proposal — called Waiawa — is currently lacking some critical infrastructure and is reliant on other developments in the region before it can move forward, commissioners amended their approval to include “incremental districting” that will restrict development of Waiawa until a later date.

The full details of the approval, known as the findings of fact and conclusions of law, will be discussed at the Oct. 15 commission meeting.

The nine-member commission approved the proposal by a vote of 7-1. Commissioners pointed to a mitigation plan that will give the land’s current tenant, Aloun Farms, a number of acres elsewhere and said the project will create construction jobs in the short term and more affordable housing in the long term.

Commission Chair Opposes Decision

Commissioner Ronald Heller was excused, and the lone vote in opposition came from new Commission Chair Vladimir Devens.

“I have to vote my conscience on this matter,” he said. He noted that the loss of agricultural land across the state is largely beyond Castle and Cooke’s control, said the company has been a “good neighbor,” and added and that he believes the “excellent” development plan will indeed have the benefits described by his colleagues, but still “couldn’t get over the hump.”

“I think that at the end of the day, there’s a price to pay for all of this,” Devens said. He declined to speak to reporters as he exited the meeting room, saying it would not be appropriate to discuss his rationale.

“We’re just ecstatic that it’s come to a conclusion,” said Bruce Barrett, executive vice president for residential development for Castle and Cooke, about the years-long struggle. Asked about the incremental districting, Barrett said, “We would have preferred to have the full approval, but we’re satisfied that we’ll be able to live with that.”

He said the company plans to deliver homes by the end of 2012 or early 2013.

Not all are excited about that prospect.

“Oahu is hitting some real limits to growth. We need to start redeveloping built areas instead of paving our finite and precious farmlands,” said Harris, the Sierra Club chief. “Particularly with plans for over 13,000 new housing units already on the books for Central Oahu, it’s outrageous that the Commission would authorize new development of the best agricultural lands in the state.”

Celebrating Change

A 30-minute drive from the Leiopapa A Kamehameha building on South Beretania Street, a few miles past the merge with the H2 highway that will one day take drivers from downtown Honolulu to Koa Ridge, farmers struck a much different tone, one belied by the 2010 Hawaii Agriculture Conference’s optimistic two-word title — “Celebrating Change.”

The sixth bi-annual conference, which kicked off at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort and Spa at Ko Olina on Thursday and continues Friday, was designed to inspire and educate those interested in farming and reconnect those already in the industry. Scheduled keynote speakers included Timothy LaSalle, the founder of NewEra Agriculture; Sarah Bittleman, a senior advisor to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; and Stevie Whalen, executive director of the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center.

Programs Thursday afternoon included farmer-to-farmer “speed dates” and a wonky, sparsely attended presentation about accelerating the adoption and implementation of conservation practices for large-scale farming operations — for example, by planting ground cover crops in mid-October so a few light rains can establish the cover before the wet season comes and damages the soil.

While the conservation practices presentation audience had a smattering of gray, white and balding hair, two rooms over, younger farmers got the pitch about the importance and reward of a life in agriculture.

In a program titled “The Next Crop: Educating Youth,” a panel of educators from the Big Island’s School Garden Network, the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii schooled Hawaii’s youth, many of whom were wearing Kua O Ka La School or “No Panic, Go Organic” T-shirts, about sustainability and promoting ecosystem health.

“Some kids don’t know what a whole tomato looks like,” said panel moderator Dexter Kishida, school food coordinator for Kokua Hawaii Foundation.

Nancy Redfeather, program director for Hawaii Island School Garden Network and the Kohala Center, said until recently that every school had a garden to feed its students. When Big Island public, private and charter schools were surveyed in recent years, food sustainability advocates were pleasantly surprised that about a quarter of them said their garden programs were still alive.

Not everybody in your class is going to be a farmer, Kalani Flores, an education resource specialist with Mao Organic Farms, told the children. So why is it important for the youth of today to understand what it takes to be a farmer?

Because all of them are going to eat.

With these issues in mind, this reporter will be exploring all that comes from Hawaii’s farms next week as part of Kanu Hawaii’s Eat Local Challenge. Read about the experience and lessons learned, and share your own insights into eating local food.

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