Eila Algood is both a poet and a farmer.
On her 34 acres of agricultural land in North Kohala, Algood plants trees to help reforestation efforts, and harvests eggs from her 15 chickens to sell. Algood says she can’t afford to hire the farmhands necessary to expand her operation because paying employees a living wage in Kohala is not within her means.
Algood wants to build tiny homes on her land to attract young people to work and live on her farm. She imagines a future where people can live in tiny mobile homes, traveling from farm to farm depending where labor is needed.
She’s part of a group of Big Island residents who see tiny homes as the pathway to sustainable living, but have come up against county zoning laws.
A bill in the Legislature might help these Kohala residents build tiny homes on land zoned for agriculture, but state and county officials warn doing so could lead to colonies of people living on agricultural lands who aren’t farming.
“It’s opened up a whole can of worms,” Rep. Cindy Evans said of the bill she introduced. Evans represents North Kona, and North and South Kohala.
House Bill 2 would add language to state law to specify that farm owners can legally build tiny homes on their land. The Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee unanimously passed the bill Friday.
State law already permits clusters of employee housing, but counties, rather than the state, issue permits for construction. It’s unclear whether Hawaii County would currently issue permits for a cluster of tiny homes on agricultural land.
Rather than changing current law, Evans explained that her bill would prevent the possibility of Hawaii County officials cracking down on tiny homes being built on agricultural lands.
“We’re putting a definition into the books so that the county doesn’t disallow it,” she said.
That idea raises red flags for officials from the state’s Department of Agriculture. The agency submitted testimony in opposition to the bill, arguing that permitting matters should be left to counties and that the bill would add unnecessary language to the existing law.
State law lists 23 legal uses for Hawaii’s agricultural lands.
“Every year we seem to be adding to this,” said Micah Munekata of the Department of Agriculture. “People are looking for different things to do on agricultural lands … We want to make sure that (agricultural) land is used for agriculture.”
People could start renting out their tiny homes on Airbnb or other vacation rental sites, Munekata said.
Evans says she’s spent the last five years introducing legislation to address the issue of housing farm workers.
“A missing piece in our agricultural production is housing,” said Marcy Montgomery of the Big Island-based nonprofit One Island Sustainable Living.
Her organization has held four events entitled “Tiny House Initiative Community Conversations” at locations around the Big Island and has more events scheduled.
Farms often require an employee living on the property for security purposes. It’s also easier for farm workers, many of who work from sunrise to sunset, to live on or near the farm rather than commute long distances.
Still, the risk of abuse keeps Michael Yee, the director of Hawaii County’s planning department from supporting the bill.
In testimony, he expressed concern over the loss of “precious agricultural lands.”
“A person could just obtain a business license, plant and maintain a single tree, and generate no income whatsoever, and would thereby qualify for a tiny home on agricultural land,” he said.