Jerry Ornellas, a member of the state Board of Agriculture and Kauai’s IAL citizens advisory committee.
Image: Photo by Joan Conrow

Large landowners can designate critical acreage, subject to the LUC’s last call.

As Hawaii struggles to feed and fuel itself, agricultural lands are becoming increasingly critical. In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring each county to identify and preserve its choicest farm lands. Oahu is now preparing to embark on the Important Ag Land (IAL) process, in which the state is required to protect and conserve Ag lands in order to increase agricultural self-sufficiency, diversify agriculture and assure the availability of agriculturally suitable lands. In the meantime, major private landowners around the state have voluntarily dedicated about 90,000 acres as IAL.

“To me, that’s a real good start,” said Russell Kokubun, director of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture (HDOA). “It’s good to have it protected in perpetuity.”

Landowners were motivated in part by a legislative incentive package, which includes tax credits for constructing Ag-related infrastructure. Incentives also include the right to develop farm dwellings and employee housing on the land, loan guarantees and the ability to petition the state to reclassify up to 15 percent of the IAL acreage into a rural, urban or conservation district.

But landowners are also aware that up to 50 percent of their holdings could be deemed IAL, so it’s in their best interest to select the acreage themselves, rather than wait for the counties and state Land Use Commission (LUC), which has the final say, to make the call.

“They know this IAL is going to come out of their hides, so let’s see how much political pressure they bring to bear,” said Jerry Ornellas, a fruit farmer who serves on the state Board of Agriculture and the IAL citizens advisory committee for Kauai. “I hope our recommendations don’t get watered down too much.”

The Kauai committee, assisted by Karl Kim, an urban planning professor at the University of Hawaii, used criteria developed by state legislators to score each tax map parcel on the island for its agricultural vote.

At a meeting held to discuss the committee’s draft report, Mike Dyer, a Kauai real estate agent, expressed concern that he and other Ag land owners are “going to lose some rights for incentives that are pretty feeble. In my gut, I have the feeling that it’s not going to be very positive.”

But Ornellas said the committee did not recommend small property owners for the IAL process, unless they have speciality lands, such as taro loi.

Ornellas is also concerned that some landowners seem to think that once they’ve designated some acreage as IAL, the rest of their holdings are open for development. That’s an important consideration, since 47 percent of the 4.1 million acres that comprise the Hawaiian Islands is currently in the agricultural district.

“I keep reiterating the mantra has to be, nothing changes,” Ornellas said. “This is not going to be the third mahele, the mahele for the developers. But some of the large landowners, they just explode when you tell them that.”

He has an ally in Kokubun, who says, “The idea is not to dismiss those other Ag lands that aren’t designated as IAL for any reason. They will remain in Ag, and we still need to maintain our land use policies in regard to that.”

Still, as Peter Young, the former director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), noted in a recent Facebook post, “[I]nitial mapping used broad-brush strokes and, in many places, lava flows and other non-productive real estate was categorized as ‘agricultural.’ More needs to be done to identify truly-farmable land to be placed in the broad category of agricultural.”

Kokubun agrees that some Ag lands are better suited for conservation and urban districts. But he thinks the best venue for that discussion is the Office of State Planning’s (OSP) boundary review process.

Although OSP is mandated to conduct a review every five years, Kokubun says it’s been 20 years since the last one was done, and the Hawaii Economic Development Task Force has recommended using monies from the barrel tax to fund a new review.

Ornellas expresses frustration that the IAL process seems unlikely to result in any significant land reform, in terms of breaking up the large holdings that date back more than a century in Hawaii. On Kauai, only Grove Farm and Alexander & Baldwin have voluntarily designated acreage as IAL. County planning director Michael Dahilig says the county would likely have to develop some incentives of its own to bring other landowners into the fold. And since just five owners control some 110,000 of the 136,980 acres designated as agriculture, Ornellas says private ownership is key.

“That tells the real story of where we’re at, this third world scenario of a few wealthy landowners controlling all the land,” Ornellas says. “It may be in IAL, but then they just lease it on their terms. Farmers need security, and that’s why they need private ownership.”

Once land is designed IAL, it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to change it.“What also needs to happen, and I’m exploring that, is that certain state lands could be petitioned to be designated as IAL and we could provide parcels to smaller farmers,” Kokubun says. “That’s really the role of the state.”

Such an effort would require DOA, DLNR and the Department of Hawaiian Lands to cooperate, as all three entities have jurisdiction over agricultural lands, and Kokubun said he’s hopeful it can be accomplished. “The community is very supportive of becoming more self-sufficient, so it’s a good time to move ag forward.”