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Hawaii’s agriculture department supports a master-planned community in Ewa that would displace one of Oahu’s largest farms.
Russell Kokubun, chair of Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture, told the state Land Use Commission Thursday that the agency decided not to oppose D.R. Horton’s proposed Hoopili development after meeting with the company and getting a commitment to foster agriculture within the development.
The Hoopili community would include 11,750 homes, five schools and space for shops and restaurants.
Kokubun’s support is a reversal from his predecessor, Sandra Kunimoto, who testified against Hoopili in 2009.
Now the state’s support is a major boost for D.R. Horton. The developer is going before the state Land Use Commission for the second time to convince commissioners to reclassify 1,500 acres of prime ag land for urban use — a critical step in allowing the development to proceed.
The commission rejected Horton’s application in 2009, after Friends of Makakilo argued that it lacked a timeline for completing stages of the development.
The development would displace Aloun Farms, which provides a wide variety of local produce for Oahu. It’s become a major point of contention for Hoopili opponents, including Friends of Makakilo, the Sierra Club and Sen. Clayton Hee who have intervened in proceedings. Hawaii imports about 85 percent of its food, and critics argue that the loss of farmland will further erode the islands’ food sustainability.
But, along with Kokubun, other city and state officials testified that Hoopili is in line with long-standing county development plans and that there is plenty of fallow agricultural lands and water resources to support future farming operations.
But it was Kokubun who carried the most weight in the hearings.
A local farmer himself, he presented the department’s case in favor of Hoopili. He testified that there were 2,250 acres of agricultural lands that could accommodate the displaced farmers and that the department was pleased with D.R. Horton’s plans to set aside land for farming.
“The aspect that was most intriguing to the department was the 251 acres within the development to be used for an urban-ag initiative,” he said. “That’s a new concept at least for me, and I had great interest in seeing how this would come about.”
But Kokubun didn’t get off easily. Eric Seitz, an attorney for Sen. Clayton Hee who is opposing the development, grilled him about how his role as the head of the state ag department conformed with his pro-development stance.
Seitz and other opponents say Horton’s farming plan is inadequate, particularly the 85 acres of land that has been designated for home gardens, which opponents have called laughable. Sykes asked whether that wasn’t the same as telling people that if they have a backyard than they can grow vegetables.
“My understanding is that a plan would be provided for each prospective buyer, that was professionally done,” replied Kokubun. “Then it’s the responsibility of the homeowners themselves.”
Seitz went so far as to ask Kokubun whether he thought his position was hypocritical in light of his long history of advocacy for local farming.
Unflappable, though at times showing a glimmer of indignation, Kokubun didn’t waver from his message. He dismissed the suggestion that his support of the project is contradictory to his leadership on agricultural development and food sustainability.
Kokubun stressed that the department would work to help the displaced farms find alternative land.