Vanishing Ag-lands.
Image: Matthew Kain

Trading prime farmland for urban development--What’s the real cost of Ho‘opili and Koa Ridge?

Development / With new developments happening all over the place–and a couple of controversial ones looming menacingly on the horizon–Oahu residents have to ask themselves: What is the limit to growth on Oahu?

According to the 2010 census, 953,207 people currently reside in Honolulu County–up 8.8 percent from the year 2000. If we continue to grow at the (unlikely) exact rate of 8.8 percent per 10 years, we will have 1,037,089 people in 2020, and just over 1.1 million in 2030. A more than doubling of Oahu’s population has occured over the course of 70 years (the population was 500,409 in 1960, according to the US Census Bureau); and that is a conservative growth estimate.

So what is our plan? Seems like building more houses is all we’ve got in the pipeline so far. And if the numbers play out, we’ll need every one of them. According to the preceding projection, we’ll have 175,000 more people in 2030 than are already here. Given our current average 2.87 people per household, we will theoretically need another 61,000 homes to keep up.

Second City?

The Kapolei-‘Ewa area has long been talked up as a forthcoming “second city,” the last piece of the puzzle in fostering nearly uninterrupted urban sprawl from Kapolei to Hawaii Kai.

In 1997, Honolulu’s Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) adopted the ‘Ewa Development Plan as a sort-of “vision” for ‘Ewa’s future; it’s key objectives being to develop the city of Kapolei, the University of Hawaii at West Oahu Campus, the Koolina Resort, the Campbell industrial area, and the Kalaeloa area.

The plan also establishes urban growth boundaries in order to protect Ag lands outside of those boundaries from further development, basically, an imaginary line that says “Town stops here.” Other undertakings include completion and development of “master planned suburban communities,” and reserving land for a future rapid transit corridor (i.e. rail).

Master Planned

At the threshold of the ‘Ewa Development Plan’s urban growth boundary is the 1,554-acre site of the impending Hoopili development: An estimated $4.6 billion project, which would add over 11,000 homes to the ‘Ewa plain and would be built right on top of what is currently prime farmland.

The land in question–currently farmed (under lease) by Aloun Farms–is owned by Texas-based development giant D.R. Horton’s local Schuler Division. But the state’s Land Use Commission (LUC) has the final say as to whether the land will be re-zoned to build Hoopili. The project was already shot down in 2009 by the LUC because of Shuler’s inability to split the project up into adequate phases.

Now Schuler’s back for another try, after having made revisions to the original plan, as well as having gained public support before appearing in front of the LUC (sometime in the fall). Supporters of the project cite the accommodation of Oahu’s growing population and jobs–mostly construction–that Hoopili would provide as adequate reasons to build.

People who oppose the Hoopili project, however, have worries of their own. Kioni Dudley is the president of the Friends of Makakilo, and one of Oahu’s biggest disputants to the development. Dudley raises concerns about the inevitable increase in traffic on H-1 and heralds the importance of local agriculture.

“[The land in question] really is essential to our survival in the future, and that’s why I’m fighting this fight,” says Dudley. “It’s not that I’m against development, per se, but that land grows four crops a year. It’s our highest producing farmland in the state. Some people might say it’s the highest producing farmland in the world.”

Another “master planned” community development called Koa Ridge–recently denied the go-ahead by the LUC–also had plans to pave over prime Ag lands. The project was to begin building infrastructure on the land between Waipio and Mililani, adding 3,500 homes with initial homes originally expected to be delivered by the end of next year. The intervening Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter overturned the LUC unanimous October vote of approval on the grounds that one of the board members’ votes should not have counted.

The LUC needs at least six “yes” votes in order to approve re-zoning the land, but the environmental group contested that Duane Kanuha, a Hawaii Island representative on the commission, should not have been counted since his term on the LUC had ended and the state Senate had denied appointing him to a second term. Kanuha was serving as a holdover member of former Gov. Linda Lingle.

Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto ruled in favor of the Sierra Club, which marked an important victory for advocates of local agriculture. However, the developers Castle & Cooke are not giving up; they’re weighing their options and considering future legal moves. They can also re-file their application to the LUC, which raises the question: Is this development stoppable, or are we just delaying it?

“I do think it’s stoppable,” says Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter. “I think there has been a huge shift in people’s understanding and knowledge about growing local. We’re light-years ahead of where we were just five years ago.”

Hitting the ceiling

What position does the state of Hawaii take on issues like the re-zoning of Ag lands? Our governor, Neil Abercrombie, made food security a big part of his campaign, promoting a “food revolution” with hopes of raising the supply of local food.

Developments like Hoopili and Koa Ridge are just the start. If they’re given the green light, we’ll see acre after acre of farm land paved over for houses that local people may or may not even be able to afford living in. The state of Hawaii–specifically the Department of Agriculture and the DPP, along with the people running them–needs to be held accountable for the loss of the very land that it’s workers have been appointed to protect.

The disappearance of prime farmland also raises serious questions about Hawaii’s ability to sustain itself. The more we rely on outside sources for the things we need, the more vulnerable we are to being exploited. The price of oil now will be nothing compared to 10 years from now, and rising with it, will be the costs of having produce–along with everything else–shipped in.

Yes, these developments create jobs. But so do farms. Why should construction jobs be prioritized over farming jobs? Seems there are no definite answers just yet, and that’s a hard row to hoe.