It wasn’t meant to be a bet. But for D.R. Horton, which paid $70 million for a 1,500-acre tract of farmland in Ewa — based on a plan to build 12,000 homes — it’s starting to look that way.
The six-year project has become embroiled in larger policy debates about the direction of Oahu’s future when it comes to development. And last week, the Hawaii Land Use Commission heard opponents of the project known as Hoopili testify for more than 10 hours about why the development was bad for Hawaii.
“I want you to think about this as a decision that affects the next generation and the generation after that, and all the people who have yet to be born who will some day live in Hawaii and need what this land can produce,” said Leon Sollenberger, who testified for opponents of the project. The Sierra Club, Friends of Makakilo and Sen. Clayton Hee have all intervened in proceedings before the commission to try to stop Hoopili.
Commissioners must decide by July whether to reclassify more than 1,000 acres of prime agricultural land for urban use. The project will displace two of Oahu’s largest farms.
Hoopili developers say they never expected to come up against this resistance.
Horton has promoted Hoopili as a “live-work community,” a place where you can walk or bike to shops, afford a home for your family and grow your own vegetables in your backyard or in community gardens. They have stressed that this is a project that would create thousands of jobs for local construction workers in desperate need of work.
But for those who oppose the development, it’s ultimately not about how nice Hoopili may be, or how many jobs it might create. In the end, their argument has come down to a broader policy debate around growth versus sustainability. And on this issue, state and county directives are anything but clear.
The county’s Ewa Development Plan, last updated in 1997, identifies the Hoopili lands for urban development, even though the state has classified them as agricultural.
“How a state can classify land agricultural, and then the county come in with an overlay of urban, it confuses the developer, it confuses the people,” said Peter Apo, a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, during testimony against Hoopili. “Because it raises expectations on the part of the developer that even though that land is classified as agricultural, it’s OK to start pumping money down and cross our fingers that they will be able to get it reclassified.”
Intervenors in the case before commission have argued that broader state mandates, which ultimately trump the county, should prevail. They note that the state Constitution says that ag lands be protected. And a law passed by the Legislature in 2008, directed all the counties to identify their important agricultural lands. These lands would then remain in ag in perpetuity, unless changed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. On Oahu, the county has yet to comply with the law, with officials complaining that it’s an unfunded mandate.
But while the state has made the protection of ag lands and the push for food sustainability a priority, it’s also backed the creation of a so-called “second city” on the leeward side of Oahu.
And much of the land in that region has already undergone development. In testimony, Apo speculated that 75 percent of the open space had been developed.
Cameron Nekota, an executive vice president at DR Horton, noted that the same land that the state has been developing in that region was also prime ag lands, and that the state has invested heavily in development in that area.
“Since 1997, when you count up all the projects and infrastructure and buildings and development, it’s well over a $1 billion investment that has gone in from the state, county and federal governments,” he said.
County officials have projected that Oahu’s population will grow by 120,000 by 2030. And while opponents have lamented that Hoopili will contribute to the island’s urban sprawl, Nekota questioned what other area could accommodate the added population.
“It’s been a massive investment in the area. There’s no other area in the state that has been sized infrastructure-wise to accommodate things,” said Nekota. “If we aren’t going to build in Kapolei anymore, and that is the decision that the Land Use Commission makes — that we are not going to build there anymore — then I think the population is going to continue to grow, then where are we going to build all those homes?”
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