As the County Council bandies about a plan to tax the seed companies differently than other agricultural uses, it's time to ask, what is the real objective here?
Is it to drive out the GMO seed companies? Open the land for development? Generate more property tax revenues for the county? Stick it to the largest private landowners? Pander to voters in an election year? End subsidies for only certain types of corporate ag? Or some combination thereof?
Councilman Tim Bynum, who introduced Bill 2546, said in yesterday's Council committee meeting that the seed companies have created “significant impacts on the community. Do we want to give them the same subsidies as we do people who provide food, flowers, coffee?”
To remove that subsidy, Tim's bill calls for “excluding lands that are used primarily for the research and development of crops or parent seed production” from the definition of agricultural use. They would be placed instead into a separate classification: agronomics. Tim justifies it in part by his repeated undocumented assertion that the seed companies are engaged only in research, and do not produce anything for sale.
But as Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura noted:
If you take land out of an agricultural dedication it is assessed at its highest and best use, which is its development value. I believe that has all kinds of implications in terms of a pressure on farmers to develop their land.
So how does that fulfill Tim's stated goal of the ag dedication, which is to keep ag lands in production? And what about the ag vacation rentals that do a wink-wink phony nursery to get an ag dedication, when their real income is derived from luxury short-term accommodations? Haven't they created a “significant impact on the community?”
JoAnn proposed amending the bill to keep the land in ag, while creating another assessment for seed companies.
Tom Shigemoto of A&B, which owns 7,000 acres of ag land, with 4,000 acres currently leased for coffee and seed corn, brought up another point:
Removing land from the ag dedication will significantly increase real property tax assessments and payments. For landowners dedicated to keeping land in agriculture, it may represent a challenge in obtaining ag lessees that are able to effectively utilize large tracts of land. Land costs are a significant component in the overall success of farming.
In other words, by taking thousands of acres out of ag and putting them into a higher-priced agrinomics category, the county is essentially ensuring that only multinational chemical companies will be able to afford the taxes. And as Tom noted, even they may not want to pay.
Imposing additional financial challenges [on the seed companies] may result in either some of these entities scaling back or relocating to other entities with more favorable tax structures, with the unintended consequence of jeopardizing the longterm viability and sustainability of Kauai's agricultural industry.
Is it an unintended consequence? As I've reported previously, high end realtors are backing the anti-GMO movements on Kauai and Maui. They certainly stand to benefit from the demise of ag on the undeveloped westside, with all its lovely sunset and Niihau views.
Though some may say "good riddance" if the seed companies scale back or pack up and leave — which is Councilman Gary Hooser's intent in supporting the bill — what will happen to the thousands of acres they lease that would no longer be in agricultural dedication, and taxed instead on their highest and best use?
You got it: development. The landowners would have to pay the property taxes somehow. And the reality is that there is no other ag enterprise — not ranchers, farmers or flower growers — ready, willing or able to cultivate the land now used by the seed companies.
David Arakawa of the Land Use Research Foundation raised the specter of legality, saying there could be court challenges associated if acreage currently designated as Important Ag Lands is placed in a different tax category. He also asked whether the bill would be affected by the recent federal court ruling that pre-empted Ordinance 960, the county's pesticide/GMO regulatory bill.
“You can't put lipstick on a pig,” he said.
“Are you saying this bill is a pig?” Gary shot back.
“If the intent was to go after GMOs, no amount of changing a word here or there is going to hide that,” David replied. “That not gonna fly. A judge is gonna see through it.”
Gary, who previously defended the legality of Ordinance 960, pooh-poohed the idea that Tim's tax bill could be illegal. “Disingenuous is the word for closing the afternoon. It's important for us to clarify things for the record. The public hears these accusations that we're targeting, it's against the law, we're going to end up in court. The county clearly has the authority over taxes.”
Yes, I've always agreed that disingenuousness is wrong, and things should be clarified for the record. But every time I try to do that with Gary's falsehoods about Ordinance 960, GMOs and pesticides, he flips out and goes on the attack.
“To have this misinformation spewed from the microphone is inappropriate,” Gary said, before spewing a bit of his own.
“We're not raising anyone's taxes,” Gary said. “We're discussing the possibilities.”
The Council will resume discussion on the bill in two weeks. Which would be a good time for the public to press for honest answers to the question: What is the real objective here?