Friday, February 1, 2008

Important Agricultural Lands

One of the most important issues for the future of land use in Hawaii is the state's planning for and implementation of the Important Agricultural Lands (IAL) process. As a complex and long-standing issue, it is not one that is likely to generate headlines. But, for those invested in the preservation and protection of land and resources, it's a hot topic. Today, the Water, Land, Ocean Resources & Hawaiian Affairs Committee and the Agriculture Committee convened to address a long agenda of bills devoted to IAL and land use.

The bill that generated the most dialog was HB2808 RELATING TO IMPORTANT AGRICULTURAL LANDS. Introduced by Ag Chair Clift Tsuji, the bill provides incentives and protections to establish and sustain agricultural operations on IAL lands. Those incentives include excluding rental income from agricultural leases on IAL lands from gross income, IAL tax credits, building residential housing on IAL lands for farmers, employees and families, income tax credits, and agricultural loans.

The section of the bill that generated the most debate relates to an amendment to Section 174C-2 Hawaii Revised Statutes, which is a section covering the State Water Code and the policy of the State Water Commission. The bill adds the following language to the section:

(d) The public trust doctrine shall guide the actions of the commission. In the planning and allocation of water resources, to the extent feasible, the commission shall recognize the public trust purposes of resource protection, domestic uses, upholding the exercise of native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights, and the conservation and protection of agricultural activity on important agricultural lands under part III of chapter 205.
There was significant opposition to amending the public trust doctrine. Several testifiers emphasized that while they support farming and the availability of agricultural water, there was no evidence that the water code needed to be changed for this purpose or that agricultural users have been denied water under the code. The protection of the doctrine was paramount.
In 1978, voters of the state approved Article XI, Section 3 of the State Consitution, which outlined the state's policy to preserve productive agricultural lands in Hawaii. In 2005, the Legislature passed HB1640,CD1, or Act 183, which set forth the plans to identify important agricultural lands and to provide for agricultural incentives to retain the viability of ag lands for the long-term. The bills heard today specify the types of incentives and the mechanisms to implement them.

The joint committee has deferred decision making to next week.

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