As Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie asks lawmakers to confirm dozens of appointees to state boards and committees during the special session this week, he’s facing resistance over a nomination to replace a member of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, which votes on land leases and new rules governing natural resources.
Some county and state officials worry that appointing Shawn Smith, who is the general manager of the Kauai real estate company Falko Partners, would send the wrong message about land use in Hawaii.
The criticism centers around Kahuaina Plantation, a 357-acre stretch of land on Kauai that Falko Partners is in the process of selling for $70 million. The beachfront property is zoned for agriculture, but the company is marketing it as a luxury housing subdivision.
Marketing materials for the property boast of the potential for 80 exclusive homes along a secluded coastline with a clubhouse and other amenities.
Critics of the project say it’s yet another example of how agricultural land is being depleted in Hawaii in favor of homes for the wealthy.
State law says that land zoned for agriculture may have “farm dwellings” — defined as “a single-family dwelling located on and used in connection with a farm.” Clusters of single-family farm dwellings are permitted “within agricultural parks developed by the State, or where agricultural activity provides income to the family occupying the dwelling.”
Opponents of the project say that the proposed homes don’t quite make the cut.
“[Appointing Smith] is sending such a strong message to the counties that it’s okay for you to be approving luxury home subdivisions on agricultural land,” said Sen. Laura Thielen, a Democrat from Kailua. “And under the law, it’s not okay.”
The governor defended his decision on Monday to nominate Smith.
“The real estate experience and knowledge Mr. Smith has acquired as general manager of Falko Partners will add a practical perspective to the issues that regularly come before the Board,” Abercrombie said in a statement. He noted that Smith has been serving as an interim member since June and that large landowners and their employees have served well on the board in the past.
Smith said it took his company from 2004 until 2010 to gain approval for Kahuaina Plantation from the Kauai County Planning Commission.
“Everything was done right to the letter of the law and it took a lot of money to do it right,” Smith said.
He doesn’t expect the development project to come before the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, but said he would recuse himself from any decision if it did.
The Kahuaina Plantation includes a 17-acre organic farm, a nursery and an albatross sanctuary, Smith said. But, he added, the soil on the rest of the property isn’t rated well for farming.
Kauai Councilman Gary Hooser described the property as having only “token agriculture.”
“It’s not really for farms, it’s for luxury homes,” he said. “There’s no question at all that this project violated the spirit, principle and intent of the state constitution.”
Hawaii’s constitution requires the state to “conserve and protect agricultural lands, promote diversified agriculture, increase agricultural self-sufficiency and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands.”
Dee Crowell, Kauai County’s deputy planning director, said it’s not unusual for the county to approve subdivisions on agricultural land, and that the Kahuaina Plantation property followed the law.
“Subdivisions are pretty cut and dry: you meet the requirements, you get the approval,” Crowell explained.
“If they don’t like the law, they should change it,” he said. “They’re the lawmakers.”
DISCUSSION QUESTION: Are you concerned that Gov. Abercrombie’s appointees are too favorable to development, or is it normal to choose people with practical expertise and experience with the issue?