Hawaii lawmakers’ latest attempt to swap urban state property for private farm land appears to be dead this legislative session.
The Senate passed a bill earlier this month that proposed spending $400,000 next fiscal year to investigate the possibility of acquiring lands owned by Dole Food Co. between the North Shore and central Oahu that may be suitable for long-term diversified agriculture production.
The original plan was for the state to trade the Oahu Community Correctional Center site in Kalihi for nearly 20,000 acres of former pineapple land owned by Dole. That was later simplified to looking into roughly 6,000 acres of Dole land and seeing what state property of equal value might be available for a deal.
The state could in theory boost local food production by renting out the land to farmers and also relocate OCCC, a crumbling low-security jail, to Halawa, the site of the state’s overcrowded medium-security prison. With some 1,400 Hawaii prisoners in mainland facilities as of 2014, expanding Halawa was also put forward as something the deal might accomplish.
The initial notion was Dole would get the 11-acre OCCC site, which is right along the path of Honolulu’s planned rail transit line. That property could then be turned into a high-density, mixed-use development near the rail station that’s to be built in the area.
Supporters of the deal touted how it would preserve ag land, improve food self-sufficiency, address public-safety issues and create more affordable housing. Critics were concerned about the funding mechanism and that the ag land may no longer be suitable for farming after decades of growing pineapple on it.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and 17 other state senators introduced Senate Bill 1374 in January. It was simplified in the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Jill Tokuda. It cleared the Senate on March 10 and crossed over to the House.
That’s where it apparently died this week after Rep. Ryan Yamane, who chairs the Water and Land Committee, did not schedule it for a hearing. He did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.
“I’m disappointed and I do hope they can consider some other legislative options to revive the bill,” Dela Cruz said.
House leaders referred the bill to three committees, creating a tough process to get through but not an impossible one. Water and Land was its first stop and it needed to clear that hurdle by Thursday under internal legislative deadlines.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the bill could be resurrected later this session through some form of legislative maneuvering, such as gutting a different bill and replacing it with this measure’s contents. The measure seems to have broad support.
Dan Nellis, operations director for Dole Food Co., told lawmakers last month that Dole supports the bill as a way to trade or sell its excess acreage. But he said Dole needs to “clearly understand the state’s expectation and its process of acquiring private lands.”
Of the nearly 20,000 acres originally being considered for the exchange, only 8,389 are on lands suitable for agriculture production, according to the state Office of Planning.
“While further study would be needed, much of the area does not appear to contain productive agricultural lands,” Office of Planning Acting Director Leo Asuncion told a joint panel of three Senate committees hearing the bill.
“Nonetheless, preservation of these lands for long-term agricultural use could create opportunities for farmers who currently farm under short-term leases or licenses, prevent the further loss of this important agricultural resource, and provide a stable agricultural land base in support of efforts to increase local production to meet Hawaii’s food and agricultural crop needs.”
The Office of Planning estimated this year that there are about 67,000 acres of agricultural land left on Oahu with a slope of 20 percent or less, the gradient that’s ideal for farming. That’s about 17.5 percent of the island.
The study did not include data on how much of that land may have already been taken out of farming while retaining its agriculture classification. The agency is in the process of determining that.
A similar deal fell through last year at the end of session, except instead of trading Dole land for the OCCC site it was in exchange for land in East Kapolei near the rail station at the start of the planned 20-mile line.
The administration of Gov. Neil Abercrombie at the time opposed it, preferring instead to purchase the parcels outright and leverage federal dollars in doing so.
William Aila, then-director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, told lawmakers in April 2014 that the department “does not support land exchanges of state income-producing lands or lands designated for future income production and development.”
“If the land is sold to a third party, the access agreement between the state and Dole Foods Inc. will terminate,” he said. “This will result in a loss of access to manage and maintain investments to protect high priority watershed areas on state lands.”
Instead, Aila said, the state supports acquiring certain lands through the administration’s capital improvement project budget request.
The current administration seems more open to the idea, although a new DLNR chief has yet to be found.
Gov. David Ige, who took office Dec. 1, withdrew his nomination of Carleton Ching to head the department Thursday after a public outcry and lack of support in the Senate to confirm him.
Ching has worked as a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, a major land developer in Hawaii. Billionaire David Murdock owns Dole Food Co. and Castle & Cooke.
Carty Chang has served as interim DLNR chair. His testimony on the bill last month did not indicate a philosophical opposition to the proposed land exchange.
He was concerned, however, with using money from the Land Conservation Fund to pay for the costs of executing the exchange if appropriate land is found. Environmental groups and others shared his sentiments. The bill was later amended to change the funding source to the Agriculture Development Revolving Fund.
Chang also noted that the measure was so unclear as to exactly what state parcels would be exchanged that the department would be unable to do its due diligence.
Groups ranging from the Hawaii Farm Bureau to the Chamber of Commerce have called on lawmakers to pass the bill and pursue the land exchange.
“The acquisition by the state of the Dole Lands will significantly increase the available agricultural land under the State’s control and will provide farmers with long-term leases that will enhance the economic viability of Hawaii’s agriculture industry,” HFB President Christopher Manfredi said in his testimony last month.