HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The controversial Ho'opili development project in West Oahu cleared a major hurdle today.
Supporters cheered and opponents sighed when the nine member state Land Use Commission voted 8 to 1 to reclassify about 1,554 acres of agricultural lands between Kapolei, Ewa and Waipahu belonging to D.R. Horton-Schuler Division. The developer is trying to build nearly 12-thousand affordable homes on the land over the next 20 years.
"The state Land Use Commission's decision today brings us one step closer to developing Kapolei into the 'second city' it was planned to be," said Cameron Nekota, vice president of D.R. Horton - Schuler Division. "After so many years of careful planning and community input, we are humbled by the state Land Use Commission's support to move forward with this community that we hope to shape into O'ahu's most desirable neighborhood. We look forward to continuing to work with the public to ensure that Ho'opili represents the best interests of the community."
Longtime opponents, like activist Dr. Kioni Dudley believe the commission made a grave error.
"We thought we'd really presented a case that was convincing, and I think the people today, lost and lost greatly," said Dudley who says he and other opposition groups plan to appeal the decision in court.
Pearl Johnson of the League of Women Voters provided final testimony this morning and said the land will forever be stripped of its nutrients if the Ho'opili development is built. She supports the efforts of Save Oahu Farmlands to preserve the land and said she was stunned by the vote.
"I thought that we would at least have 3 against, reacted Johnson to the vote. "To have only one is really crushing." She added the shock of the vote on the heels of the LUC's decision yesterday to approve the Koa Ridge development project in Central Oahu.
The controversial Ho'opili project which has pitted preservation against development was included in the city's urban Ewa Development Plan back in the late 70's and is unanimously supported by the area's three surrounding neighborhood boards.
Some Land Use commissioners cited their support for the developer's petition based on support of Ho'opili from other state agencies, like the Department of Agriculture, Office of Planning and even the current owner of the farming operation that's currently working the land, Aloun Farms.
Commissioner Thomas Contrades of Kauai read a letter by Alec Sou of Aloun Farms who submitted testimony in support of the project. He said Sou expressed enthusiasm in working with the community and government leaders to continue to support and promote farming operations and sustainability. Contrades also said Sou believes there's plenty of good farm lands available to cultivate.
The only no vote came from Commissioner Jaye Napua Makua who raised traffic issues and the viability of the land and a lack of residential surveys to the Ho'opili project.
"When I read HAR (Hawaii Administrative Rules) 15-15-77 that requires that agricultural lands in production, two years prior to the filing of a petition shall not be reclassified unless the development is needed for urban growth or if the reclassification will not impair agricultural production in the state," she said, "for me, my decision is based on what will be impacted greater. Will the production of agriculture be impacted greater than the fulfillment of those homes for urban growth? For me, with that land representing 32 percent of the land in production in all of Hawaii in ag, that is a greater impact."
Opponents argued the commission violated its duties to ensure important that ag lands are preserved in accordance with long term state sustainability efforts.
Commissioner Ronald Heller of Oahu disagreed. He also said the commission is also required to consider employment opportunities and economic development and the availability of housing to all income groups.
Ho'opili developers say it will create 27,000 jobs in construction and related services over a 20-year period and 7,000 permanent jobs in areas including a research and development park to support University of Hawai'i at West O'ahu and medical offices at Kahi Mohala as well as other related shops, restaurants and entertainments centers that are expected to open to accommodate the growing community.
Commissioner Heller also stated the LUC has to act on the current facts right now and not the things the City and County could potentially choose to do.
"The question has been suggested that the land in question could be and perhaps should be officially designated as important agricultural land pursuant to HRS section 205-47, however as we sit here today, that has not been done," stated Heller. "I also note that the City and County has not asking us to deny the petition or to delay any action while the City completes its process of designating important agricultural land. Other's have suggested we should wait, but this is a City & County process and the City & County itself, has not requested we wait."
Opponents raised water use concerns, traffic congestion and cultural issues, even the real need for more housing in the growing second city of Kapolei. But the developer and its supporters said they made their case to the LUC and that all those issues are being addressed and that some farming operations will continue.
"Aloun Farms is going to continue to do the Pumpkin Patch, they're going to continue to do other things for many years," said Nekota. "The community has said they want that there, so that is going to happen, I think. With our agricultural plan, what you're going to see is a phasing from a large scale agricultural operation to a much smaller farms for build out."
According to a press release today from the developer, Ho'opili's plans to incorporate agriculture and food sustainability into its design by providing "the opportunity to farm more than 15 percent of its developable acreage - approximately 159 acres of land."
It further stated that, "Through Ho'opili's urban agriculture program, small commercial farmers will find an opportunity to grow their businesses at Ho'opili. Ho Farms recently entered into an agreement indicating its intent to relocate to Ho'opili, and it plans to build greenhouses to grow cucumbers, tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables on an 18-acre site within Ho'opili."
Nekota said they now move forward to the City & County and the City Council for rezoning. He said in a perfect world in their development timeline, they hope to be able to make some infrastructure improvements in 2013 and by 2014 deliver some of the first homes in the community.