A sweeping land-use bill that would affect thousands of properties on Oahu has been put on hold, possibly until next year.

The decision was made by Honolulu City Council member Brandon Elefante, chair of the zoning and planning committee, after the Department of Planning and Permitting said it needed 120 days to review the measure, which would move city council consideration into 2023.

The committee met in a special hearing Monday after being deluged with hundreds of comments from property owners raising concerns about Bill 10, with many pointing out potentially dire ramifications and plying officials with questions about why so few people knew about it until recently.

Tourism helps subsidize farm ventures at Kualoa Ranch. Owners say Bill 10 could kill their business. Ku'u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

Kualoa Ranch said the bill would put them out of business. Owners of horse farms said it would undermine Hawaii’s paniolo culture by zoning horses off agricultural land. Locally based brewing companies said the bill would impose new hardships on them and make it harder for them to compete with beverages brewed on the mainland.

The bill, which was well along the way to passage until early this month, attracted much negative comment about how the city had handled the public notification process.

“These bureaucrats say they did outreach,” said Lynne Matusow. “We need to see a list of the many (their word) stakeholders, government agencies, consulting firms and developers who participated. How many is many? Meanwhile, the real people, those who will be affected daily, have not had any input.”

Criticism Mounts

Many commenters asked in written testimony that the bill be held back for further consideration.

“This Bill, while well-intended and ultimately needed as part of a comprehensive update, simply has not had sufficient time for public understanding, input, discussion or deliberation,” wrote Winston Welch, executive director of the Outdoor Circle. “Such major changes and complicated changes proposed to so many areas of land simply cannot be rushed and it cannot be at all in the public interest to advance this Bill at this time.”

Some residents applauded portions of the bill. Residents of Kahuku, where 20 wind turbines have been installed in recent years, were pleased that the bill’s deliberations led to unanimous council support for greater restrictions on wind machines in the future. That debate had become part of the discussion over Bill 10.

Current land-use rules allow wind turbines to have a 1-to-1 setback, that is, a 500-foot turbine must be at least 500 feet from houses, schools and stores. As a result of deliberations over the measure, council members all said publicly that they supported instead a 1.25-mile setback, or more than 10 times farther from other properties.

The strongest supporters of Bill 10 in testimony to council were three development firms, including the Pacific Resource Partnership, Stanford Carr Development and Centre Urban Real Estate.

The bill would cover a wide range of properties, including agricultural lands, mixed-commercial areas, housing construction, residential treatment homes, hotels, day care centers and agritourism. Its intention has been to make needed changes to land-use rules, including by boosting housing density and protecting agriculture, but Honolulu residents have testified in strong terms about the feared negative effects of many of the proposed changes.

North Shore Agricultural land aerial.
Bill 10’s intention to protect agricultural land could easily backfire and hurt family farms, critics say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Provisions banning motorized vehicles in agritourism destinations and sharply limiting weddings would gravely injure the windward side’s Kualoa Ranch, its owners said.

“This would kill our company and force us to fire over 300 people, including most of those involved in ag, to what gain?” asked John Morgan, president of Kualoa Ranch. “Kualoa Ranch is successful because of the symbiotic relationship between tourism and ag, and it is possible because we take people on motorized vehicles through our property, and have events amidst agricultural settings. For us, tourism supports ag. Without tourism, our ag production would be decimated. This is a very poorly conceived bill.”

Robert Dawson, a founder of Kunia-based Ko Hana Distillers, which makes rum from sugar cane juice grown in Hawaii, said that if Bill 10 passed, his business would be forced to move production because the distillery operates on agricultural land using sugar cane harvested on leased land elsewhere. Dawson said the firm now employs 12 full-time farmers and 25 operations and customer support workers.

“Please do not pass this bill,” he told the council. “It would be devastating and possibly impossible for us to recover.”

The council also heard from many horse breeders and stables, who said that the law as now drafted would remove raising horses as an allowable agricultural land use.

“While I suspect the intent of this bill is to prevent the rise of the gentleman farm, the suggested changes in this bill way overshoot the mark and will strike a large blow to the equine agricultural industry,” wrote social worker Sonja Bigalke-Bannan, who operates an equine therapy practice. “So many ranches and farms have shut down in recent years or have kicked out the animals and become wedding venues instead. The Paniolo history that is so important to our islands and has been preserved by the horse industry is under threat. By removing horse breeding and boarding from allowed activities on agricultural lands, you strike another blow.”

Approving Amendments

Ian Scheuring, a spokesman for Mayor Rick Blangiardi, said city officials had become aware that more deliberation over the bill was needed, noting the measure is large and complex.

“Through the Council hearing process, this administration has become aware that more community engagement is indicated and necessary,” Scheuring said in a statement. “The proposed delay is to give both DPP and the members of the Honolulu City Council the opportunity to review the proposed amendments, engage our communities regarding the proposed changes and make sure the proposed amendments are in the best interest of our residents, economy, industries and land use patterns.”

Honolulu City Council Member Brandon Elefante. 8 feb 2017
Brandon Elefante, the chair of the zoning and planning committee who will leave the City Council at the end of the year, is at the center of the debate over Bill 10. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

After hearing testimony about the bill, Elefante, who represents heavily urban District 8, called an executive session to discuss it privately with the other council members and city legal staff.

When the committee reconvened, Elefante said he had decided to postpone the bill to a future time of his selection. Elefante is barred from running for reelection on the council because of term limits and is instead running for a state Senate seat.

Council member Esther Kiaaina asked if he intended to put it on the agenda for October, but Elefante answered that he had no “particular date.”

Kiaaina said she would be having “further conversations with corporation counsel,” which is the city’s legal staff.

Elefante also, however, granted the request by DPP to seek a 120-day extension of time to reconsider the bill.

That announcement may have effectively quashed the measure, at least for the year, because a new council will be constituted after the Nov. 8 general election and the new members will take up their posts next year, requiring the measure to go through the law-making process all over again.

Scheuring acknowledged the issue may have to go to a new council.

Held In Committee

Elefante then approved a number of amendments to the bill, which he said he would craft into another version of the measure, including support for a 1.25-mile setback for wind turbines. He previously had supported a 1 mile setback, while almost all the others wanted a 1.25-mile setback.

Other amendments proposed by council members at the special hearing included provisions to block agriculture lands from being used as meeting places or child care centers and weakening restrictions on the percentage of tillable land that must be actively farmed to be deemed “agricultural.”

In a statement, Council Chair Tommy Waters thanked Elefante for adopting amendments and for holding the bill in committee, which he said would give council members time to work with people who have continuing concerns.

The bill has been under consideration for several years. Its development was orchestrated by the city’s chief land-use planner, Katia Balassiano.

An announcement last week indicated Balassiano was leaving her job at the city Department of Planning and Permitting, and at Monday’s meeting it was disclosed that she had found a new job at the Land Use Division of the Hawaii Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Katia Balassiano had found a new job at the State Land Use Commission. Balassiano will be joining the Land Use Division of the Hawaii Office of Planning and Sustainable Development.

At the meeting’s closing, council members thanked her for her service to the city and wished her good luck in the new job.

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