Prime state ag lot sits vacant for 6 years; could be home to little fire ants

Prime state ag lot sits vacant for 6 years; could be home to little fire ants
Published: Apr. 9, 2014 at 12:31 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Instead of being used as a farm and generating rental income for the state, an agricultural plot in Waimanalo has been vacant for six years, prompting complaints from a state senator.  But the state Agriculture Department called the situation an "anomaly" that it is trying to lease out "as soon as possible."

In Waimanalo, there are more than five dozen agricultural plots owned by the state and rented by farmers.

But then there's an overgrown 5-acre parcel on Waikupanaha Street that hasn't been used by farmers since the last lease expired in February of 2008.

"It hurts to drive through the back of Waimanalo and see fallow state properties that could be leased out, especially when there's such a demand," said State Sen. Laura Thielen (D – Kailua, Lanikai, Waimanalo), whose family owns a farm in Waimanalo.  Thielen used to sit on the state Ag board as head of the Land and Natural Resources Department, during the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle.

Thielen is also concerned because the state is testing the parcel for a potential infestation of Little Fire Ants.  The insects can cause painful bites to people and blindness in dogs, cats and farm animals.

The state Agriculture Department said 26 farmers applied to rent the land in late 2009 and the high bidder offered to pay $32,500 rent a year.

But more than two years went by and the winning bidder did not complete pre-lease requirements, including a soil and water conservation plan, so the process was canceled.

During that time, trees, bushes and plants overtook the property, engulfing buildings such as a garage and greenhouses which are barely visible through the brush.

Even the fire hydrant is covered with overgrowth.

"To have a lot that's completely overgrown, it becomes kind of a hiding area for people who come back into the neighborhood and who steal from the existing farmers," Thielen said.

"The department does its best to lease lands as soon as possible while following the state's laws," said the state Agriculture Department in a statement.

The Ag department called the vacant lot "an anomaly," saying "We have about 65 other ag lots in Waimanalo that are all currently leased."

In January of last year, the Ag department once again put rental of the lot out to bid, receiving 22 applications and the highest bidder offered $28,200 a year in rent.

Once again, the bidder was unable to complete pre-lease requirements, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman said, so the staff is in the process of rescinding that award.

The Agriculture department is supporting a proposal before lawmakers this year, co-sponsored by Thielen, which would allow the department to choose a backup lessee when going through the bidding process.  That way, if the winning bidder cannot fulfill the required obligations, the state could automatically move to the backup lessee, rather than spending a year or more going through the lease bidding process again.

"We do support current legislation that would allow us to qualify a backup bidder should the top bidder fail to complete the requirements, but for now we are required to follow the current laws," said Janelle Saneishi, public information officer for the Department of Agriculture.

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