Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Musings: Can of Worms

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.


Andy Parx said...

Thanks Joan for a spot on analysis of this horrible bill that will, in the end, be a bigger loophole then the “ag condo” provisions in turning ag land into de facto “gentlemen’s farms”. Unfortunately there is a campaign to pull the wool over the eyes of the politically naive who want to support sustainable organic farms asking them to inundate the council with support for this bill. But, as you point out there are legal means available right now to accomplish the goal of worker housing. If people had bothered to view the planning commission hearing it would be apparent that this bill is the wrong approach.

Anonymous said...

Joan said,

"The problem, however, is that the bill before the Council is more likely to usher in a can of worms than an agricultural renaissance.

"... 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."

Isn't the real problem the county council passing legislation with loopholes in it? This is easy to prevent by simply reading the proposed legislation and envisioning the worst case scenario possible", because that is exactly what will happen. Then you correct the legislation and envision again. Repeat as necessary.

An unspoken assumption is that the loopholes are unintentional. That may or may not be true. If it is not true then we need more capable council members.

Anonymous said...

Island agricultural independence is an absurd fetish. And even if it made sense to grow all our own food on island (and it does not make sense, and it never will) the reason we don't has nothing to do with how much land is available for ag.

Anonymous said...

"Island agricultural independence is an absurd fetish"

-- is it that far fetched? seems like if the organics cooperated more and were better marketers / businesspersons they could profitably maintain a pretty good constant output by selling to island hotels / stores. im just guessing of course

tho i see where its easier for them to blame monsanto corp culture, some gentleman farm / estate on the other side of the island, etc


Anonymous said...

is it that far fetched?

Not far fetched. Just a silly aspiration. And even if you think it's not silly (though it is), it ain't a lack of fertile land that is preventing it. Look at all the fallow land. It's rank, dishonest sophistry to blame development in any way whatsoever for the failure of the island to grow all its own food.

Anonymous said...

mahalo joan for another excellent post. there is a lot of fear mongering and wishful thinking with this bill. of course the council will slowly on this; they can only move as quick as their slowest members.
it was good to see so many folks at the council chambers today and the majority spoke in favor of the bill. from kamaaina farmers like roy, rodney and jerry to newcomers moonbeam, sunshine and earthsong the people need to push government to create legislation that works and benefits community not commodity. as usual the main issue w/the proposed bill is going to be enforcement related issues.

Anonymous said...

6 comments today on an interesting post, 28 on burials...see the pattern over the past few months? More folks participate when you mention the word "burial" and "development" versus anything else...GMO's, ag, etc. I think you strike some kind of chord when you discuss the iwi issues....agree?

Anonymous said...

28 comment in 24 hours....
6 comments in 11 hours.....
time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is correct. The current CZO has provisions that already allow farm worker housing.

Joan Conrow said...

I think you strike some kind of chord when you discuss the iwi issues....agree?

Yes, that does seem to be a particularly hot topic.

Anonymous said...

Well, "sacred bones" harboring "spirits of ancestors" is SO NOT 21st century.

Mauibrad said...

We need more worms. Go ahead open the can.

Anonymous said...

In Hawaii we have landlord/tenet laws. Getting someone evicted can be a real hassle. I wonder if the supporters of this bill have considered this. What do you do if a worker refuses to work?

Anonymous said...

"can of worms" is more like Pandora's Box...once it's open as it is now, there's no closing it.

Anonymous said...

"We need more worms."

Not that kine.