When Linda Baptiste got a letter from Honolulu lawyer Kalani Morse in April, it was more than a little alarming. According to Morse’s letter, the City and County of Honolulu had proposed to designate Baptiste’s property as “Important Agricultural Lands,” a change that Morse said could restrict the way she used her land or even force her to grow produce.

Hawaii Grown

Baptiste’s property had been in her family for generations, and she planned to pass it to her kids when she passed away. She worries what implications the designation will have on her property.

In any case, Baptiste says, the worst thing is she was never given much of a chance to object to what the city is proposing because she simply didn’t know what was going on until it was too late. Although some have criticized Morse for creating a frenzy among property owners, Baptiste said she’s glad.

“I was grateful for the frenzy because that’s the only way I learned my property was involved,” she said. “It certainly wasn’t through a government agency.”

Morse declined to comment.

Linda Baptiste, right, and Diana Young are neighbors in Waimanalo and worried about the City and County of Honolulu’s Important Agricultural Lands plan. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2021

Baptiste is not alone. She’s one of more than 100 property owners who have submitted testimony to the state Land Use Commission, which is considering the city’s recommendation to designate some 41,000 acres belonging to about 1,800 owners as Important Agricultural Lands.

The commission is scheduled to hold hearings on Wednesday and Thursday to take testimony and question the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting.

The city maintains that it followed the processes laid out in the IAL statute for designating land. For instance, the city says it sent two separate letters to affected landowners, held public meetings as required by law, and created an advisory committee to help apply criteria the law requires the city to use when designating IAL.

But opponents aren’t convinced. The opposition is notable because it includes virtually none of the big landowners that normally fight land-use restrictions. That’s because most of the big players voluntarily designated half of their ag lands as Important Agricultural Lands and thus qualified for an incentive that protects the other half from involuntary designation, said David Arakawa, executive director of the Land Use Research Foundation, which represents large landowners.

The result is the opposition is a motley mix of mostly small landowners, including small farmers, horse stable operators and renewable energy interests. Although some of the landowners are professionals with a sophisticated understanding of the law, and some wealthy enough to hire lawyers, still others are more like Baptiste: elderly people living on or managing land that they say has been in their family for generations.

Among them is 72-year-old Yvonne Watarai of Waianae. Like Baptiste, Watarai said the city did a poor job notifying her.

“First of all, many of us are not educated enough to understand what has been going on even though you have sent out notices,” she said in written testimony. “We read them, but don’t understand them and don’t realize the seriousness of them.”

Watarai declined to comment beyond her testimony. But she did say it was comforting to know she wasn’t alone.

And it’s not just official testimony. A Change.org petition asking the state and city to make IAL a voluntary process had 985 signatures as of Tuesday.

“I expected to ride off into the sunset,” Watarai said, “but I’m afraid it’s going to be a rocky ride, or might be.”

Another oft-cited complaint is that land proposed to be called “Important Agricultural Lands” is barely fit for agriculture at all.

Among those making such a complaint is former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who is representing the owner of two parcels.

Important Agricultural Lands
The City and County of Honolulu has recommended the Hawaii Land Use Commission designate more than 41,000 acres as “Important Agricultural Land,” which would impose some additional restrictions on things like farm houses and make it more difficult for owners to reclassify the property for other uses. Courtesy: Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting

One parcel, Hanabusa testified, “has not been used in agriculture, there is no independent water source and the soil conditions do not qualify as prime agricultural lands.” The other parcel, she wrote, has no water and has coral-based soil.

“It may be the City’s position that lots like this were sold by the dairies in the Waianae area and ‘could be’ consolidated for the agricultural use,” she testified. “This is not a criteria for IAL.”

Another involves parcel size. Tom Witten, a Honolulu urban planner, owns a 6,500-square-foot kuleana parcel with his wife Janet. To Witten, it simply makes no sense to designate such a small tract as being vital to Hawaii’s agriculture economy.

In his testimony, Witten included an analysis showing that 418 parcels recommended for designating as IAL are less than 1 acre and many less than 5,000 square feet. Another 308 parcels are less than 2 acres which is the city’s minimum lot size under Ag-2 zoning, Witten testified.

In an interview, Witten said that lot size is one of the criteria the city is supposed to consider when designating land as IAL. And many of those lands wouldn’t be economically viable as ag land even if the size was increased.

“To elevate it up so that it meets IAL standards to me is pretty bizarre,” he said.

Dawn Takeuchi Apuna, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Permitting, said parcels do not have to be big for certain activities, like grazing.

“If you have small pieces, it doesn’t mean you can’t do ag on it,” she said.

In any case, Apuna asserted that the IAL designation in the end imposes few restrictions and is instead meant to provide incentives.

“It’s supposed to help farmers and people living on ag land,” she said of the IAL designation.

On a recent afternoon, Baptiste got together with her neighbor, Diana Young, who runs Young’s Nursery on about 5 acres near Baptiste’s place. Both women are widows, both retirement age, and both share a chief complaint: that the city didn’t notify them effectively.

It’s not just individuals like Baptiste and Young who say they should have had more time to understand what was happening. The California-based solar energy giant 174 Power Global, which won a bid to build a large solar farm with battery storage in Kunia on Oahu, testified it was only recently told about the IAL designations and has asked the Land Use Commission to “consider granting more time to allow potential impacted parties the ability to determine involvement in the process.”

So if the solar subsidiary of a Fortune 500 giant wants more time, it’s hardly surprising Baptiste and Young do too.

Like Baptiste, Young says a chief complaint is what she says was a lack of notice.

“If they had told us sooner,” she said, “we could have fought it when our husbands were still alive.”

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