The state attorney general’s office has ruled that Honolulu officials complied with state law in proposing to designate nearly one-eighth of Oahu as “important agricultural land,” tossing the final decision back to the Hawaii Land Use Commission.

Hawaii Grown

The panel will have to make some tough choices as it faces objections from owners who insist their land is hardly useful for agriculture, much less important. Some parcels are less than an acre and contain little more than a house, they say.

In May, the commission sought an opinion from the attorney general after it faced torrents of testimony from angry residents over the City and County of Honolulu proposal. The recommendation includes 1,800 parcels, representing 41,000 acres, or 12% of Oahu’s land.

On Thursday, the commission made the opinion public. The upshot: according to the state’s lawyers, Honolulu officials complied with state law when recommending lands that potentially should be designated as IAL.

According to the Attorney General’s office, the commission can either send the matter back to the city or take on the burden of deciding case-by-case whether certain lands should not be considered IAL.

“The LUC ultimately determines whether to adopt the City’s recommendation and maps to designate lands as IAL,” Deputy Attorneys General Linda L.W. Chow, Julie China and Daniel Morris said.

The IAL proceeding has turned into a massively thorny issue for the commission. The 1978 Hawaii Constitution mandated designating highly productive ag lands as such. But it has taken more than 40 years to get to the point where Oahu has put forth maps identifying what lands should be considered so important to the state’s agriculture economy that they should have special protections.

Along with some other restrictions, the designation generally makes it harder for landowners to reclassify their land for a use other than agriculture.

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer
During a May meeting, Hawaii Land Use Commission Chairman Jonathan Likeke Scheuer said the commission would stay proceedings on a land policy affecting some 1,800 landowners on Oahu pending an opinion on a key issue from the Hawaii Attorney General. The opinion has now put the matter back into the hands of the commission. Courtesy: Hawaii Land Use Commission

But scores of landowners say the city was wrong to recommend their property for the designation. Take Ambika Ramamurthy and her husband, Gerald Gordon, a 70-year-old retired Department of Education employee who had heart surgery a few years ago. According to their testimony, the couple’s 1.72-acre homestead in Waialua has thin soil covering lava rock, is mostly shaded by old monkeypod trees and has little reliable water supply. Their ag operations consist of growing some fruit and “raising a few chickens.”

Asked on Thursday if she agreed with the state’s lawyers that Honolulu’s procedure for recommending her home as IAL was adequate, Ramamurthy declined to comment, deferring to her written testimony.

But, she added, “Our property does not meet the criteria for Important Agricultural Land.”

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

The full legal opinion can be read here.

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