Friday, May 23, 2008

Musings: The Big Give Away

Waialeale was demure when Koko and I went walking this morning, with only its silhouette visible in the cool white light of an egg-shaped moon. And then the sun rose, exposing the cracks and crevices in her ancient face, which blushed pink in the dawn glow.

Mist rose high in the pastures, its ethereal cloak obscuring Ha`upu, and the grass along the road was wet from yesterday’s rain. Ran into my neighbor Andy, who offered Koko a dog biscuit from his pocket stash, but since she had three molars pulled yesterday, she had to forego her treat.

But not so the big landowners, who got major treats from the Lege this session, thanks to an “important ag lands” bill that offers them all sorts of goodies to ensure they keep their ag land in, well, agriculture.

Now why, you might ask, should they be rewarded — indeed, given major incentives — for adhering to the existing land use classification for their property? In my mind, they shouldn't.

But there’s a certain weird sense of entitlement that major large landowners have that comes from ag land being treated like urban/rural/residential land in-waiting — an attitude that has arisen because state and county officials have for so long given them the privilege of reclassifying their ag land into more lucrative uses.

This attitude is summarized in testimony offered by Dan Nellis, operations manager of Dole Food Company in Hawaii:

If the support of diversified agriculture is a constitutional mandate to meet a compelling public interest and our agricultural land is to be downzoned to achieve this purpose, we believe it is unreasonable to expect landowners to bear the brunt of subsidizing the public interest.”

I’m not sure how he figures that keeping ag land in agriculture is “downzoning.” But such is the mindset of those who hold sway with certain members of the Lege, and thus were able to convince them — following a series of backroom maneuvers — to pass a bill that will give landowners who agree to protect certain agricultural lands the right to reclassify 15 percent of the total into the urban and rural districts.

They also get all sorts of other goodies, including the right to build housing on 5 percent of the protected land (the “majority” of which would be for farm workers), loan guarantees for certain projects, and tax credits for building roads, utilities, irrigation, farm worker housing and buying ag equipment.

Under this bill, the state will even give landowners tax credits for the legal and consulting fees they rack up trying to obtain or retain water rights — a resource that the state constitution holds is a public trust.

Not surprisingly, the backers of this bill include the Hawaii Association of Realtors and the Building Industry Association, along with the big landowners. The Farm Bureau also jumped on the bandwagon, reportedly because they were desperate to finally see some movement toward designating important ag lands, an initiative mandated 30 years ago by the state Con-Con.

Kauai’s Sen. Gary Hooser and Rep. Mina Morita voted against it, with Mina noting at the recent Eco-Roundtable meeting:

There are some good elements in the bill, but the bill is slanted toward all of these taxpayer-funded incentives to large landowners and also limits, I think, the public discussion in taking land of ag and putting it into rural and other uses. It’s a dangerous step we’re moving toward.”

Gary, who said he was concerned it had the potential to increase urbanization “in an unplanned, haphazard way and seemed like a windfall to the major landowners,” also told me:

If we just enforced the laws we have and said ag lands could only be used for ag purposes, the value of these lands would drop and would become more valuable for farming.”

Now the issue is before Gov. Lingle, who has the power to veto the bill, and the big PR push is on to get her to sign it, using farmers as the front men. Both the Maui News and Star-Bulletin recently ran viewpoints submitted by Farm Bureau reps arguing that the bill isn’t a giveaway and instead will save agriculture.

But not all farmers agree. Glenn Teves, a farmer and Molokai ag extension agent, sent a letter to the guv that stated, in part:

In life, it's not what you do; it's how you do it. Architects of the convoluted version of the bill that passed, including the House Speaker [Calvin Say], purposely short-circuited the legislative input process to jam this bill through, and circumvented legislative checks and balances. This bill is just a reflection of this travesty of justice since it cuts out community input in the land use process, which is so vital to sustainable community planning. I believe this is a major selling point of this bill for landowners, but it cannot be at the cost of future generations wondering who gave away their rights. Furthermore, this bill defies sane sustainable development by promoting spot zoning, and doesn't afford the protection needed to keep our prime agricultural lands locked in agriculture.

Big Island farmer Jack Kelly, in another letter to the guv, also addressed the questionable tactics used to change the bill’s language and push it through:

The original language in SB 2646 was balanced and productive and I thought at long last we had a bill we small farmers could run with but the political maneuvering by House conferees dashed that hope and we ended up with a really bad bill that gives away the farm to a powerful few really large landowners at the expense of any hope of integrated land use planning in the future, at the expense of public process and at the expense of a viable sustainable future for Hawaii's children.

The Legislature, true to its penchant for the ironic, held a super positive Solar Roofs bill hostage to garner
 the 85/15 provision in SB 2646 that could open up thousands of acres of former AG lands to urbanization.

It seems fishy to me that after 30 years of sitting on their hands, the Lege finally managed to deal with the issue right at a time when the economy is stalling and the usual suspects are pressing to push us back into the cycle of endless development.

As Gary observed, in explaining why we're in this situation:

I think the people in charge of our state since statehood, and probably before, have been the major landowners. They come before us and plead poverty and say if you don’t let us develop, we’ll pack up and sell off. There will need to come a time when the county councils and planning commissions say, I’m sorry, that’s (agricultural uses) what you’re entitled to do with it.

But I don’t know when we’re going to see that.

And if the guv signs this bill, we never will.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Post. The legislature pulled a fast one with this. The 85-15 provision was wisely rejected by the Senate twice before it was injected at the last minute. I wrote to object but only had an hours notice. This provision effectively eliminates public input and takes away the County of Kauai's ability to control our own destiny. What is the odds the governor will veto? If she does it will not be overridden.

Tim Bynum