Since 1949, when Alice Nonaka first planted the garden behind her modest home near the old Dole Plantation, the family has cultivated a small patch of land, growing lemons, guavas, bananas and noni and keeping up a few sheds, even though the land was owned by Dole.

But that soon could change.

In August, Alice’s son Dennis, who is 74, received a letter from the land’s new owner, the state Agribusiness Development Corp. It gave Nonaka 30 days to arrange removal of any structures on the land and was signed by Jimmy Nakatani, the agency’s executive director.

“If we do not hear from you before that date, all property on ADC land, including fencing, will be disposed of,” Nakatani wrote.

Trespassing on the land would subject Nonaka to arrest, the letter said.

Dennis Nonaka stands with Guava tree his mom planted on their property in Whitemore Village.

Dennis Nonaka, left, with his wife Aileen and nephew Joel stand with the guava tree his mother planted on property behind his house. The Hawaii Agribusiness Development Corp. has said Nonaka can be arrested for trespassing on the property, which is now owned by the state.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The letter, which the corporation sent to several residents in the tight-knit Whitmore Village community, has sparked outrage as the corporation tries to move forward with an ambitious project to revitalize Central Oahu’s agriculture industry.

In the middle of it all is one of Wahiawa’s most prominent residents, state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz. The grandson of a Dole truck driver, Dela Cruz has been an ardent champion of the ADC and its efforts to rebuild the area’s agriculture, which has declined with the demise of the plantations.

“The community is upset because we never knew about these transactions Donovan was doing with Dole,” said Elaine Ringor, an old friend of Dela Cruz’s parents who lives down the street from Nonaka.

Just how upset was apparent last Friday night when about 200 people flocked to a special community meeting to hear about the project and voice concerns. Almost as many attended a Monday meeting of the Wahiawa-Whitmore Village Neighborhood Board, where the ADC was scheduled to talk about the letters sent to Nonaka and others.

Dela Cruz, a 45-year-old former Honolulu City Council member who now chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the uproar is a natural byproduct of progress. He said the state has a goal of preserving agricultural land and developing the industry, and he is leading the effort.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, pictured here in 2014, has secured millions of dollars for the state’s Agribusiness Development Corp. to buy agricultural land in central Oahu.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Dela Cruz has made no secret of  his strategy of buying up land. Conceptual plans for the Whitmore Project are on his Senate webpage. He says he presented the project to the neighborhood board in 2013. The next year, he talked to Civil Beat extensively about what he was doing.

“In regard to the mechanics of ADC and what’s going on, that’s growing pains,” he said. “It’s a positive thing: it means something is going on.”

The ADC’s Whitmore Project calls for turning what’s now largely fallow farmland and old buildings into a hub for diversified agriculture, including packaging and processing facilities, a warehouse, workforce housing and thousands of acres of land. The corporation soon will own some 4,000 acres of farm land in Central Oahu, says Dela Cruz.

It’s a big change for a once-sleepy agency. Established by the Legislature in 1994, the ADC was set up to capitalize on the decline of Oahu’s sugar and pineapple plantations, which presented the state “an unprecedented opportunity for the conversion of agriculture into a dynamic growth industry.”

To carry out that mission, lawmakers gave the corporation broad powers, including the authority to buy, own and develop land. The agency was mostly dormant for much of its history, but has recently gone on a buying spree. Over the last five years alone, state budget information shows, the Legislature has appropriated more than a quarter of a billion dollars to the ADC, including about $23.4 million for operations and another $238 million for capital investments.

Agency Has Resisted Calls For Scrutiny

Although much of that money wasn’t spent and thus went back into state coffers, some lawmakers have called for greater scrutiny, which Nakatani has resisted. For example, after initially supporting a bill that would have given ADC money for papaya research, Nakatani did an about-face when lawmakers added an audit requirement to the measure. Nakatani said he didn’t support the papaya bill because the ADC’s staff of four was too busy to be audited.

For an agency spearheading such an ambitious project, the ADC has been acting with an unusual lack of accountability. It hasn’t even submitted annual reports to the Legislature as required by law. And its website is so out of date that the most recent report posted its home page is a decade old. Meanwhile, Nakatani pulls in an annual salary of almost $146,000 — more than Scott Enright, the director of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, who makes almost $145,000.

Contributing to the confusion about the Whitmore Project is a document titled “Masterplan for Whitmore Community Food Hub Complex for State of Hawai’i Agribusiness Development Corporation,” created by the University of Arkansas. The elaborate plan includes artist renderings showing features like a trendy-looking retail area and a foot bridge and zipline across the Kaukonahua Stream anchored by a sphere-shaped pavilion called ”The Nest.”

Dela Cruz said the plan is just conceptual, but that hasn’t stopped concerned citizens from citing the document and handing out renderings at community meetings, stirring up concerns and lighting up the coconut wireless.

Mitchell Ayau discusses the removal of his fruit trees behind his property.

The situation has become so heated that some residents are considering legal action to be able to keep the land behind their houses. Mitchell Ayau, who is pictured in the video above, says that the ADC bulldozed several imu he had built behind his house along with banana trees used to fuel the Native Hawaiian cooking pits, and other fruit trees.

He’s particularly upset about an old tangerine tree that he said was removed despite promises that it would be left alone.

Ayau said he believes he can claim ownership under a legal principle known as adverse possession. The general idea is that if someone has been openly and continually using land for at least 20 years, contrary to the landowner’s wishes, and the landowner doesn’t do anything about it, then the person using the land can claim title in some situations.

In this case, Ayau would essentially have to argue that the sale of the land to the Agribusiness Development Corp. wasn’t valid because Ayau actually had title to the land at the time of the transaction, said Robert Thomas, a Hawaii land-use attorney.

Thomas said that Ayau would likely have an uphill battle because, among other elements, the person making an adverse possession claim has to think it’s their land.

Ayau is undeterred. He’s already brought it up with state officials, he said.

“I told them ‘grandfather clause, adverse possession,’ whichever one you want to call it,” he said.

Down the hill from Nonaka’s house, at the end of a gravel road posted with No Trespassing signs, lies a cluster of buildings including a small lumber mill and flower shed. There’s one poi dog on a chain and another with three legs, wandering free.

Bill Wise in Whitmore Village with his Haleconia flower.

Bill Wise, a retired firefighter, runs a small farm in Whitmore Village. He praises the ADC for trying to support local agriculture.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Bill Wise rents 16 acres in the valley from the ADC, growing mostly flowers. His son recently started a business milling reclaimed trees that were headed for the wood-chipper. And Wise plans to diversify further by growing microgreens for specialty stores.

Tensions between Wise and his neighbor up the hill, Nonaka’s next-door neighbor Peter Sy, are no secret. But Wise says he’s just trying to run a small business and prevent people from encroaching on land he leases. He commends the ADC.

“They’re trying to do something for Hawaii that hasn’t been done for 100 years,” he said of ADC’s efforts to support diversified agriculture. “We can feed Hawaii. It can be done.”

Whether ADC can win over Wise’s neighbors remains to be seen. Cindy McMillan, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, said the ADC has extended the eviction deadline but doesn’t yet have a new one. The governor appoints eight of the ADC’s 11 board members, but McMillan said the board has deferred to the ADC staff for operational decisions, like whether to send out the eviction letter.

She said she understood the letter was sent out because of complaints that the land was being used not merely for illegal structures but also for activities like gambling, prostitution and illegal drugs.

Dela Cruz, meanwhile, has been working to find a solution. Elaine Ringor said the senator floated the idea of the ADC granting a revocable permit, which would have to be renewed each year, to let people use the land behind their houses. Dela Cruz said ADC is still looking into whether that can be done, although he stressed illegal structures would have to be removed.

Myra Kaichi, a former deputy attorney general who serves as the ADC’s senior executive assistant, confirmed the agency is considering revocable licenses, and added, “We’re open to suggestions.”

She said the deadline for people to leave the state property had been extended and passed on Wednesday. The ADC hasn’t taken any action to evict people, she said, although the agency has not extended the deadline formally.

“Everything’s up in the air,” she said.

Nonaka said he’s not sure what to make of the situation, and of Dela Cruz’s role in it. He calls the senator “one of us” and adds, “His father grew up with us.”

Dela Cruz says that connection to the land and the people is what’s motivating him to keep the land in agriculture.

“That’s why I’m desperately trying to save it,” he says.

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