A state judge has allowed a Kahuku farm couple to move forward with a lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and the manager of the Kahuku Agricultural Park after the couple was threatened with eviction and had water necessary for their aquaponics operation shut off.

Simeon and Kathy Rojas in 2016 secured a 15-year sublease for three acres at the state-owned Kahuku Agricultural Park. But by 2021, their landlord, Thomas Narvaez Jr., was pushing to get rid of them, first trying to evict them, and later, after a state judge rejected Narvaez’s eviction petition, shutting off their water, which was vital to their aquaponics operation.

The Rojas’ eventually sued the state Department of Agriculture, as the master lessor and operator of the ag park, alleging the department had failed to fulfill its duties as the agricultural park’s manager by allowing Narvaez to bully them.

The 15-count complaint also named Narvaez and the ag park’s manager, Roy Hasegawa. The suit says Hasegawa worked with Narvaez in an attempt to wrongly force the couple off the land.

Simeon and Kathy Rojas
Kathy and Simeon Rojas, pictured here at Hooah Farms in February, say they want to be able to move out of the Kahuku Agricultural Park so they do not have to deal with their landlord and Department of Agriculture officials. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

In a motion to dismiss, the Department of Agriculture’s lawyers, Attorney General Holly Shikada and deputies Bryan Yee and Thomas Berger, argued, among other things, that most of the allegations don’t apply given the facts, that a statute of limitations bars the Rojases from bringing claims for torts such as negligence, and that Hasegawa as an individual owes no duty to the couple, despite being the ag park’s manager.

Circuit Judge Lisa Cataldo granted the department’s request to dismiss the vast majority of claims against the state, but let stand a few related to negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Hasegawa fared worse. Under Cataldo’s order, he still faces eight counts, including claims of negligence, fraud and conspiracy.

The Rojas’ attorney, Bosko Petricevic , said the couple is encouraged. A retired Army veteran, Simeon Rojas learned aquaponics farming at the University of Hawaii’s GoFarm program in Waimanalo. Their operation, Hooah Farms, grows lettuce, tilapia and catfish.

Honolulu City Official Has Called Rojas Farm A Model For Oahu

In a court document, Dexter Kishida, the Food Security and Sustainability Program Manager for Honolulu, called the farm a model for Oahu, but having water shut off had hurt production and a planned expansion.

“Due to their water being shut off, Simeon and Katherine Rojas were forced to put their farm expansion on hold, as hatching both fish and prawns requires fresh clean water to ensure the water nutrient balance is correct,” he said. “This is a tremendous loss for the people on Oahu.”

Although Narvaez has restored the couple’s water, Petricevic said in an interview that the couple is worried that harassment could resume and that the department will do nothing to stop it. He said the couple would like the department to reimburse them for what they invested in the farm so they can set up shop elsewhere.

“They just have to get away from there,” the lawyer said. “Just give us the money and let us leave.”

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