Three years ago, state agriculture officials insisted that losing hundreds of acres of Oahu farm land to development would be a serious setback for local food production in Hawaii.

Earlier this month, state agriculture officials said losing the same Oahu farm land was not a problem.

Hawaii’s agriculture department has reversed its position on one of the largest master-planned communities to be proposed in the state. And that’s prompting people to ask: what happened?

A review of documents filed in the matter and interviews with state official sheds more light on how positions have changed from 2009 to present.

Hoopili would include 11,750 homes and five schools, and displace 1,500 acres of prime agricultural land and four farms.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle’s administration opposed the development when it was first before the state land commission in 2009.

Now, Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie has come out in favor of it, surprising and disappointing his environmental supporters who say he’d promised them the project wouldn’t go through.

The apparent reversal is welcome news to the developer, D.R. Horton, which has argued that Hoopili would provide much needed affordable housing to a growing population. But it was a major blow to environmental groups who were counting on Abercrombie to oppose the project.

“What changed from 2009 to 2011? Not the land. Not the quality of the land,” said Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends.

As it did in 2009, Horton needs to win approval from the state Land Use Commission to reclassify 1,500 acres for the development. Lingle was governor and her agriculture department chief testified against it at LUC hearings. Horton’s application was denied because it lacked an adequate timeline for completing the project.

The case is now before commissioners for a second time; a decision is expected later this year. And this time testimony coming out of the agriculture department is radically different.

Back In 2009

Lingle appointee, Sandra Kunimoto, chair of the Department of Agriculture, submitted written testimony to commissioners strongly opposing the development in 2009.

Ag land that can produce excellent yields “is a finite and irreplaceable resource in Hawaii,” she wrote.

Hoopili would result in the sudden loss of 14 percent of the available farm land on Oahu, she testified.

And the loss would be equal to the 42 percent of the high quality ag land lost on Oahu during the past 18 years, she said.

While D.R. Horton has argued that there is plenty of agricultural land in the state that can be used for farming, Kunimoto said that relocating the area farms, Aloun Farms in particular, is not so easy.

Aloun Farms is one of the largest farms on Oahu and produces a wide range of produce.

Kunimoto said that even if the farms could be moved “there are a number of negative impacts attributable to relocation.”

She pointed out that over the years, farmers develop in-depth knowledge about such things as soil quality, climate conditions and optimal harvesting techniques.

The difficulties of relocation were repeated in comments the Department of Agriculture submitted on Hoopili’s environmental impact statement in 2009.

“Farm relocation is likely to be expensive and time-consuming, even with the business-tested skills of the affected farmers,” according to the department.

The document notes that rent for alternative ag land is likely to be higher, and that irrigation water on the North Shore, a prime location for relocation, was contaminated and couldn’t be used on edible crops.

Kunimoto said that if the LUC were to grant Horton’s petition than the developer, as a condition of approval, should have to set aside an equal amount of land for agricultural use. This could be accomplished by setting aside lands the company already owns or by purchasing other lands.

The “negative impact upon the State that will result from the loss of 1,407 acres of highly productive agricultural land generally cannot be denied and such impact should be mitigated if the petition area is reclassified,” she wrote.

Move Ahead To 2012

The 1,407-acre proposed condition that Horton should come up with other farm lands to replace Hoopili isn’t something that Abercrombie’s administration is seeking.

Russell Kokubun, chairman of the Department of Agriculture, and a former senator who has championed the protection of important ag lands, was appointed by Abercrombie to replace Kunimoto.

He testified earlier this month that the department is supporting the project for two reasons: Horton plans to integrate agriculture into the urban development and more agricultural land is expected to become available for farming.

Horton has said that agriculture will be an important component of Hoopili, which it promotes as the “first community to integrate smart, sustainable food production.”

According to the developer’s website: “Not only will Ho‘opili’s Urban agriculture program create beautiful green landscapes for residents to enjoy, it will also provide a source of fresh and healthy, locally-produced food for their consumption.”

Horton has told commissioners and the Department of Agriculture that it will set aside 251 acres within the development for agricultural use. This includes 159 acres for farming operations, eight acres for community gardens and 84 acres for residential home gardens.

Kokubun told the commission that the Galbraith Trust, one of Hawaii’s biggest landowners, was in the process of transferring 1,700 acres of ag land to the Department of Agriculture, which could be available for displaced farmers. This is in addition to other ag parcels in central Oahu — a 150-acre ag park that is under development and a separate 400-acre piece of land.

Kokubun testified that the areas in central Oahu still need infrastructure to transport water for irrigation, and that there were inadequate water resources on the Galbraith Trust parcel. He said the Department of Agriculture would work to obtain funding for the improvements.

He also told Civil Beat in an interview Wednesday that 90,000 acres of ag lands had been designated as “Important Agricultural Lands” in recent years. The designation means that the lands must remain agricultural in perpetuity. The only way to reclassify the lands is through a two-thirds vote by the Senate and House of Representatives.

He estimated that on Oahu landowners had voluntarily designated about 1,500 acres as Important Agricultural Lands. Statewide, he said it was 90,000 acres.

Much of the testimony from 2009 focused on the loss of some of Oahu’s most fertile land. But Kokubun testified that with improvements in technology, lower quality lands could also prove to be very good for farming.

He told Civil Beat that his position in support of Hoopili was also based on his respect for county authority in determining which lands can be developed. The county, in its Ewa Development Plan, slated the Hoopili plot for urban development back in the 1990s.

Hearings continue Thursday with further testimony from state officials from the Office of Planning and Permitting and the Department of Transportation. A main issue will be whether the gridlock traffic on the leeward side of the island can accommodate the development. The Sierra Club will then present its case, focusing on the economics of ag and soil quality.

You can read Sandra Kunimoto’s testimony below:

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