The state Supreme Court has agreed to consider a lawsuit protesting a plan to build a 3,500 homes on farmland in Koa Ridge in central Oahu. 

The development by Castle and Cooke Hawaii would turn 576 acres of prime agricultural land into master-planned suburban community more than two miles away from the nearest planned rail station. 

The project has been mired in litigation for years. Two months ago, the Hawaii Supreme Court struck down the state Land Use Commission’s 2010 decision to approve the project, ruling that one member’s vote in favor of the project shouldn’t have counted.

But that decision hasn’t affected Castle and Cooke’s plans because the Land Use Commission approved the project again in 2012. The Honolulu City Council gave the development the go-ahead last November and the project is scheduled to break ground next year. 

The Sierra Club, an environmental group, and state Sen. Clayton Hee are leading the fight against the project, contending that the Land Use Commission’s 2012 approval violates the state’s constitutional obligation to conserve and protect farmland.

The court’s decision in the case could have huge implications for land use in Hawaii. The amount of land available for farming in the state has been shrinking as more land is converted to suburban and urban uses. The demand for housing is high and growing, driving up the cost of homes and incentivizing developers to build more. 

Bruce Barrett, executive vice president of Castle and Cooke Hawaii, said in a statement that he’s optimistic about the Koa Ridge case.

“The decision by the Supreme Court to hear the appeal does not prevent us from proceeding with Koa Ridge,” he said. “We remain committed to moving forward with the project that will fulfill a critical housing need for Hawaii residents.”

Eric Seitz, attorney for the Sierra Club and Hee, also said he’s confident of his clients’ chances. If they win the case, the project will be stopped in its tracks, he said. 

Seitz is also representing Hee and the Sierra Club in a lawsuit protesting developer D.R. Horton‘s plan to build 12,000 homes on farmland in Ewa on the west side of Oahu. The Hawaii Supreme Court hasn’t yet decided to hear the case concerning that project, known as Hoopili.

“These two parcels of land at Koa Ridge and Hoopili are among the most productive agricultural lands in Hawaii,” Seitz said. “[The developments] will have a devastating effect on the ability to produce enough food for Hawaii to consume.”

Photo: Farmland in Koa Ridge, Oahu. (Michael Levine/Civil Beat)

— Anita Hofschneider