The blackness of a new moon night lured me out to lie on the grass and look up at the smoky swirl of the Milky Way, contemplating the vastness of the universe and those who gazed upon it in the centuries preceding me.
At the first faint light of morning, Orion and bold Jupiter remained, along with a smattering of stars, though Waialeale, exquisitely clear for the past two days, had pulled the veil back over and around her. An orange mass in the east hinted at both the arrival of the sun and the possibility of rain, which we now so badly need.
How much ag land do we need to feed ourselves, possibly grow some fuel? Or as some others might ask, how little ag land can we get away with saving so we can develop the rest and make money?
Those are some of the questions that will come into play as Kauai County prepares to take the draft final report of its Important Agricultural Lands study out for public review next weekend. (Here’s the link to the general website.)
Already, though, at last Friday’s meeting of the Hawaii Congress of Planning Officials, attorney Max Graham was asking the question that matters most to those in the land development industry: what will happen to the ag lands that aren’t deemed “important?”
Because there’s a sentiment that anything not classified IAL is wide open for non-ag exploitation. And it's gaining momentum in the current economic drought, where construction, real estate sales and development — not to mention all the lucrative lawyering that goes with it — has slowed to a trickle.
But there are those who are bucking that tide.
“The mantra has to be, nothing changes,” says farmer Jerry Ornellas, one of the few real tenders of the soil to serve on the IAL committee. “This not going to be the second Mahele.”
Indeed, there is nothing in Act 183 that says ag land not designated “important” is suddenly taken out of the ag district, automatically rezoned or looked upon more favorably for development. The only thing that Act 183 does is outline the process for designating IAL, while Act 233 sets forth the significant incentives that can be leveraged to coax developers into actually using their ag land for agriculture.
The only way that our county can make the leap that any ag lands that don’t get the IAL designation are not important for farming, and thus suitable for non-ag development, is if our planning department, planning commissions and politicians adopt that mind set.
Unfortunately, the stage is already being set at the planning commission, where vacation rental owners are coming in and claiming one of two scenarios: either they can’t possibly use their ag land for agriculture, and so they need a permit for a commercial use, or their fruit trees and horse constitute a bonafide farming venture.
Either way, the farm dwelling agreement they signed be damned as politicians like Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura look the other way, making public comments like heck, nobody follows the farm dwelling agreement.
While we’re on the subject of the planning commission, I find it interesting that on the agenda for today’s meeting, as well as the previous one, there is an executive session for the purpose of evaluating the interim planning director. For those who don’t know, that’s Michael Dahilig, the former deputy county attorney whom the mayor, in violation of the County Charter, appointed to run the department after pulling Ian Costa off the job. That was 10 months ago, and Mike is still running the show.
Back in May, when the mayor invited me in for a little talk story session, I asked why Ian had been removed as planning director. His answer:
Ian was not doing a good job managing and supporting the commission. And that became even more important now that we’re beefing up enforcement.
I’m not sure if any such beef up is actually under way, and perhaps Mike was helpful in cleaning up the department a bit. But the fact remains that he is the mayor’s pick, not the Commission’s, and no one else was considered. The Commission should be actively recruiting for that position and reviewing a wide range of applicants. Why evaluate Dahilig unless you’re contemplating keeping him on, or conducting the personnel equivalent of a sole source bid?
We all know the Commission is essentially a rubber stamp for the mayor and County Attorney’s office. I recall Commissioner Jimmy Nishida telling me, “We just do what the attorneys say so we no get sued,” and thinking, a) what a chicken shit approach to planning; and b) what makes you think the attorneys know what they’re doing, especially in a county that invariably hires outside counsel whenever they want to win?
Meanwhile, here's a story on how the decision to rezone ag land on the southside for the massive, and super luxe, Kukuiula project has turned out. The title says it all: How one Hawaiian Paradise Became a Ghost Town.
We’re at a land use crossroads right now on Kauai with the IAL study coming out and the economy way, way down. To ensure the the best route for our county is taken, we need a transparent, accountable planning department and planning commission, and an active citizenry. In other words, we need a miracle.