Getting the state to reclassify 1,500 acres of agricultural land for a master-planned community of 12,000 homes isn’t so easy in Hawaii where land is limited and demand high.

Hearings on D.R. Horton’s proposed master-planned community of Hoopili wrapped up Friday after five months. Parties in the case brought more than 30 witnesses that included farmers, water and agricultural experts, economists, state and county planning officials and even two former governors.

Month after month, the hearing room on Beretania Street in downtown Honolulu was packed with members of the public, dozens of whom delivered public testimony to the state Land Use Commission.

“It’s been one of the most scrutinized projects you will ever see go through this process in Hawaii,” said Cameron Nekota, an executive at D.R. Horton.

The nine-member commission, made up primarily of attorneys who are appointed by the governor and work for free, have a July deadline to decide on whether to grant the reclassification and allow the project to move forward.

Between now and that date, both D.R. Horton and opponents to the proposed development — which include Friends of Makakilo, the Sierra Club and Sen. Clayton Hee — will file their views of how the case should be decided and come back before the commission for oral arguments.

The Hoopili case has come to represent broader policy decisions about Oahu’s future development. Hoopili opponents have said that the development would be a setback to state goals of food sustainability and proponents have argued that it represents smart development.

But Hee, who testified on Thursday, told commissioners that the decision should be clear: commissioners should reject D.R. Horton’s petition.

“Your job is not hard,” he said.

“You took a lot of time to express to me as chairman, your view on the protection of prime agricultural land and protecting the law,” he said, reminding them that he was one of the senators who through the confirmation process voted to put them on the commission. “So I would ask you folks to recall what you said to the Senate when you were confirmed.”

Opponents have argued that the commission has a clear mandate — to protect the state’s agricultural lands and spur development in the urban core.

The commission grew out of concerns dating back to the 1960s over scattered development and the loss of prime agricultural lands.

“In 1961, the Hawaii State Legislature determined that a lack of adequate controls had caused the development of Hawaii’s limited and valuable land for short-term gain for the few while resulting in long-term loss to the income and growth potential of our State’s economy,” according to the commission’s website. “Development of scattered subdivisions, creating problems of expensive yet reduced public services, and the conversion of prime agricultural land to residential use, were key reasons for establishing the state-wide zoning system.”

But Nekota told Civil Beat that this wasn’t the commission’s only purpose and that the agricultural land designation was essential “a default” category.

“Across the state, the agricultural designation is like the default representation,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily represent what the land will be used for.”

He said that the company had never argued that the Hoopili land was not prime ag land, a key point of contention in the case, but that the development fulfilled other state policy goals, including affordable housing and smart urban growth for a population expected to increase.

The commission decisions are governed by a number of criteria. In addition to the protection of ag lands, the commission must take into account county plans, potential employment opportunities and housing for all income groups.

But whether D.R. Horton has made a convincing case that Hoopili fulfills these criteria remains to be seen.

“We certainly didn’t go into this thing thinking that we were going to win or believing it was a sure thing,” said Neokota.

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