Few issues have attracted more heat in recent days than the Hoopili project in Ewa and proposed legislation that would give the governor authority to exempt state projects from regulatory review.

The Abercrombie administration is on record supporting both.

In an interview with Civil Beat Wednesday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie fleshed out his views on the issues.

On Senate Bill 755, which has pitted groups that want job growth versus those fearful that it will come at the expense of the environment, Abercrombie suggested the latter group has overreacted.

“It’s just that some folks seem to be professional naysayers, and sometimes the facts don’t always measure up to the rhetoric,” he said. “I tend to wait and see what the legislation actually says, if and when it passes, and then, obviously I will have to make decisions about it.”

“The sky is not necessarily falling during the legislative session,” Abercrombie continued. “There is a tendency for apocalyptic statements being made about what is going to happen or not happen.”

As for Hoopili, which is opposed by Abercrombie’s three immediate predecessors, the governor downplayed the significance of the master-planned community that would displace valued ag land.

“However Hoopili works itself out, you’ve got a Land Use Commission that goes back to a couple of governorships, you’ve had decisions made over a number of years — it’s a secondary issue to me,” he said.

The governor said he is focused on the “big picture,” namely, deciding which direction the state should take with agriculture. He said he and his departments of Agriculture and Land and Natural Resources are at work on a plan that will be unveiled next January.

“Hoopili, in my judgment, is part of a smaller picture,” he said. “It doesn’t have that same resonance with me.”

Lazarus Effect

The environmental exemption bill awaits a hearing in House Finance. It has already been amended several times, and it’s unclear what its final form will be.

That’s Abercrombie’s point.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he said. “I don’t pay much attention to that stuff when it’s moving through the Legislature because I’ve long-since learned that, first of all, the Lazarus effect — that which was presumed dead rises and walks again. And then there’s the shape-shifting side of the legislative process where something has one form in the morning and one form in the afternoon. Bills are used to leverage one thing and another.”

Asked if he would support a bill that gives him authority to waive the need to have environmental impact statements conducted on state projects, Abercrombie said he was supportive of the “general idea.” But he does not want to undermine “the essentials of the environmental law philosophy.”

“If I can expedite something without doing any environmental harm, obviously I would like to do that,” he said. “If there is something that is in the way that’s really administrative in nature as opposed to creating some circumstance where there would be some adverse environmental impact that would otherwise be ignored. So, I wouldn’t do something like that. But, I’ll just have to see how it (the legislation) works out in the end.”

The governor says his Transportation Department, which has testified in support of the bill, has advised that “there are some things that are not really controversial in that sense at all but that there are permitting problems or something else on a timeline basis. It could have something to do with dams or it could have something to do with bridges, or something like that. That’s what the general idea is.”

Asked about strong criticism of SB 755 from the Sierra Club and Republican Rep. Cynthia Thielen, among others, the governor replied, “I presume legislators will take a look at it and see whether there are things that need to be mitigated. That’s what the whole idea of it is. I don’t necessarily subscribe to doomsday-type statements.”

Evolving Views

Although his administration supports Hoopili, Abercrombie equivocated when asked directly whether he supports the project.

Instead, he harkened back to 20 years ago when he was on the Honolulu City Council and it was deliberating what to do with “filling in the land below the highway,” meaning, essentially, the regions makai of Farrington Highway.

“It included agriculture land, which in those days much of it wasn’t seen as prime, particularly when compared to trying to protect and preserve and utilize the central lands moving toward Waialua and so on — filling in below the highway was seen as progressive planning,” he said. “So, some of these things, you know, are atmospheric. What was seen as advanced and progressive planning in one era is not viewed the same in another era. To me, that has always been a secondary issue.”

The governor said it is important to understand the historical context — for example, that rail transit was envisioned for the Ewa area two decades ago but that it did not happen. As time and circumstances have changed, he said it is only natural for views also to change.

“People change their minds all the time,” he said. “I refer you to the divorce rate, OK?”

Meantime, the governor rejected the suggestion that he broke a campaign promise to oppose Hoopili when he was running for governor.

“I suppose if someone wants to hang their hat on that, they can, but I don’t really know how efficacious that is,” he said.

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