Crimson streaks were shooting up out of the east and iwa were drifting south, riding the thermals, when Koko and I arrived at the beach this morning. The sun rose white-gold in a pearly sky and a monk seal popped up its head and looked around, lolling in the shimmering shallows of a receding tide.
Brisk trades whipped up a frothy white chop on the silvery sea and sent a band of horizon-hugging fleece scurrying north as stacks of towering cumulus marched west. And in the center of it all were the smoky-gray and scarlet wisps of cirrus clouds.
So, too, is agricultural land at the center of the current land use debate on Kauai, with an unsettling bill for ag worker housing set to be heard by the County Council this afternoon.
It seems like a great idea on first blush. Everybody wants to keep ag alive on Kauai and help farmers, right? And it’s kind of a no-brainer that small farms often don’t generate sufficient revenue to pay farm workers the kind of wages they need to rent houses in this pricey market.
The solution, as some ag boosters see it, is to allow farmers to construct housing for their workers on their land. The theory is that this will allow them to attract more workers, and so continue production, or even step it up, allowing small-scale, organic agriculture to flourish.
The material I’ve seen circulated in favor of the bill portrays a rather dire scenario, claiming that without the measure, “many [farmers] may have to stop farming altogether and leave the island.” Specifically, they’re talking about the organic farmers at Moloaa, who seem to be both the primary impetus behind this bill, as well as its primary benefactors.
Many of the affected farmers bought Moloaa land from Mike Strong, who divided a larger parcel into farm lots and sold them at relatively low prices because no houses could be built on them. This land has since turned into a productive pocket of primarily organic farming.
Now some of the farmers want to be able to build legal homes for themselves and their workers, claiming that without such provisions, they can’t attract the labor force they need to keep their farms going. With worker housing, they argue, Kauai can take a giant step toward food sustainability and the production of healthy, local food.
It’s a great vision that’s shared by many, myself included.
The problem, however, is that the bill before the Council is more likely to usher in a can of worms than an agricultural renaissance. Real estate agents, architects and ag land owners presently stymied by vacation rental restrictions are likely licking their chops as they look at all the exploitable loopholes that threaten to further undermine the integrity of our ag lands as places that actually produce food.
The county planning department, in reporting on the Planning Commission’s discussion on the bill and offering its own review, notes the “vague distinction between transient accommodations and/or activities (i.e. agro and eco-tourism) and genuine farm laboring (as done by either permanent or migrant labor), and the potential for the bill to be abused.”
It’s not like we haven’t seen that happen already. It seems to me that before the county opens the door to yet another ill-defined use of ag land, it should clear up the existing messes with vacation rentals, gentleman’s estates and faux barns that are increasing the density and price of ag lands, without contributing anything to agriculture.
It also needs to look carefully at the enforcement issue. The county either can’t, or won’t, enforce the farm dwelling agreement that requires homes on ag land to be associated with an agricultural venture. In its review of the worker housing bill, the planning department expresses reservations about worker housing enforcement, too, noting:
To allow landowners to build housing over and above the maximum allowable residential density allotted under the County Code is an advantageous provision for landowners that could very well open the door to misuse or abuse. Thorough scrutiny of all applications and operations will be required, a level of scrutiny for which the Department may not have the necessary resources or staffing.
In the event that misuse, abuse or noncompliance is discovered, bringing landowners and their respective uses into compliance — particularly concerning housing — is, historically, a contentious, and at times, calamitous, process that demands vast amounts of time and resources, and in may cases remains unresolved for several years.
It’s important to note that the proposed farm worker housing bill is not the only option. Farmers currently have the ability to seek a county use permit to construct worker housing, a process that requires a public hearing.
The Moloaa farmers, who appear to be committed to farming, could also dedicate their land under the state’s recently-adopted Important Ag Lands law, which would not only preserve the land in perpetuity, but allow them to build houses and give them other perks intended to support agriculture. This seems to me a really good option that would help to meet their particular needs without placing other farmlands at risk for speculation and non-ag development.
While this bill is being pushed with some sense of urgency, I hope the county will move slowly and plug all the holes that can be exploited by those who are looking to reap big bucks rather than an edible crop. Yes, let’s help the farmers at Moloaa, and elsewhere, get the labor they need to thrive. Let’s just make sure it isn’t done at the expense of ag land island-wide.