- Special Projects
Former Governor John Waihee strolled into a hearing room packed with a sea of orange shirts that read, “Hoopili Now!”
The political veteran, age 65, clad in dark blue jeans and black cowboy boots, exuded a casual confidence as he chatted with executives of D.R. Horton, Hoopili’s developer, as well as opponents of the proposed 12,000-home development in Ewa, which he was there to support.
Union workers crowded the small hearing room, sitting on tables, the floor, and spilling out into the hallway.
Thursday was one of the last days of testimony that began in October for the master-planned community that would displace about 1,500 acres of prime farmland, much of it under cultivation. And it was likely the most important day for intervenors in the case, which include Friends of Makakilo, the Sierra Club and state Sen. Clayton Hee.
Hee had enlisted not only Waihee, but former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who is currently running for mayor of Honolulu, to testify against the development. The political heavyweights are likely to be among the most persuasive witnesses in the case before the state Land Use Commission, which is expected to rule on D.R. Horton’s petition to reclassify the land from agricultural to urban by this summer.
Hee himself also testified on Thursday, providing one of the most impassioned speeches of the parade of witnesses that have been brought to testify against Hoopili in past months.
Both Waihee and Cayetano, 72, provided a historical perspective on the state’s three-decade fight to preserve agricultural lands viewed as critical to advancing goals of local food sustainability. Both emphasized the 1978 state constitutional convention, which is seen as a watershed moment in the state’s political history. Language was inserted into the constitution that read that the state “shall conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands.”
To this end, the state was supposed to identify important agricultural lands that would remain classified as such in perpetuity. But 30 years later, the state has yet to fulfill the mandate, and thousands of homes have been built on fertile lands that were once the site of plantation farms.
“What we were trying to do 20 years ago exists on the Ewa plain,” said Waihee, referring to the productive farming operations in Ewa. “And it makes very little sense in my mind to urbanize that area.”
D.R. Horton argued that Waihee’s administration supported development in Ewa to advance the “second city.” And the developer’s attorney noted that the current Office of Planning, a department created during Waihee’s administration, supported Hoopili.
The former governor responded that, “if they were still part of my administration, I can assure you that they wouldn’t be supportive today of the reclassification of Hoopili from agricultural to urban.”
The Abercrombie administration has come out in favor of the Hoopili development, to the disappointment of environmentalists who say he told them he was against it while he was campaigning for governor during a private meeting. Hoopili executives later told Civil Beat that Abercrombie told them just the opposite during a meeting around the same time.
Members of Abercrombie’s administration, including Russell Kokubun, chair of the Department of Agriculture, have testified in support of Hoopili.
Having two former Democratic governors now come out against the development could dilute Abercrombie’s influence over the final outcome.
“This is about the future of small farming and the ability to expand small farms,” said Cayetano. “I think it is consistent with the policy set by his administration, my good friend, Governor Abercrombie, that we should do everything we can to have food security and sustainability.”
The promotion of agriculture and food sustainability plays a prominent role in Abercrombie’s “New Day Plan” – his policy roadmap for Hawaii.
Waihee and Cayetano gave political weight to the proceedings before the state Land Use Commission, emphasizing the broader policy implications of Hoopili. But it was Sen. Clayton Hee who delivered the most stirring speech of the morning, at one point drawing applause from the audience, which has remained quiet throughout the months of proceedings.
He said that Hawaii was “beyond the tipping point of food security.” Experts estimate that the state has about a week’s supply of food if a disaster occurs that cuts off food imports to the islands.
Hee said the day will come when a natural disaster hits Hawaii and people will panic. “When the hurricanes come, everyone runs to Costco. For what? For water. They are already panicking.”
He criticized D.R. Horton for its negotiations with Aloun Farms, one of the major produce farmers on the Hoopili land. He said that the farm owners have only now come out in support of the development because the developer made them a deal.
But Alec Sou, one of the Aloun Farms owners, has denied this and told Civil Beat previously that he supported Hoopili because it would create jobs in a difficult economy, and that there was plenty of farmland for them to relocate to.
D.R. Horton’s attorney points out that Waihee supported the West Lock development in Ewa during his time as governor.
Cayetano talks about the local demand for fresh food, countering the argument that large-scale mainland food operations will always out compete local sources.