Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024|
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A plan to save farms facing the expiration of their state land leases has once again made it to the governor’s desk.
House Bill 307 is a measure that would allow certain lessees of agricultural park land to renew their leases for another 30 years, and is a reincarnation of a 2022 measure that would have done the same thing but was vetoed by then-Gov. David Ige.
Hilo Rep. Chris Todd, introducer of both last year’s bill and HB 307, said he has high hopes that Gov. Josh Green will be more amenable to the bill than his predecessor.
“To his credit, Green has been doing a lot of outreach with farmers,” Todd said. “One of the things about this proposal is that there has been no community opposition to it for two years. There have been six committee hearings this year, and nobody’s been saying it’s unfair or anything like that.”
The bill, which is fundamentally identical to last year’s, would allow lessees with 15 years or less remaining on their leases to apply for an extension of up to 30 years, so long as the land they lease is 25 acres or less — and not on Oahu.
Todd said there are roughly 100 farms in just the Pana‘ewa and Pahoa agricultural parks, most of which would be impacted by the proposal. He estimated that more than 90% of those farms will have their leases expire between 2030 and 2037.
“We could end up seeing dozens to a hundred farms just stop,” Todd said. “The reason we’ve got to do this now rather than waiting for that 2030 date is because farmers need to be able to plan for the future.”
Some of those farms could, in theory, relocate to new land or reapply for a new lease with the Department of Agriculture, Todd said. But doing so would be extremely expensive in even the best circumstances, and, for many operations such as avocado farms, outright impossible.
David Shiigi, a Pana‘ewa lessee who owns plant nursery Bromeliads Hawaii, said his lease will expire in 15 years after 30 years of operation, leaving the future of his business in jeopardy.
“If we can’t get the lease extension, we won’t have any options,” Shiigi said. “We’ve got a lot of plants, we have a lot of vested interests on the property. Are we going to have to bid again? We might as well just bulldoze it and burn the place.”
Shiigi said that his daughter hopes to take over the business if the lease is extended, adding that several other farm lessees also want to pass on their operations to future generations.
“We’re just asking for another 30 years,” Shiigi said. “At least this way, I’ll have a legacy to leave my family.”
Last year, Ige said he vetoed the bill because the agricultural lease program was intended to be “a start-up program to allow new farmers to become commercially established,” and that extending existing leases would lock would-be farmers out of available land.
But Todd said that interpretation of the program is flawed.
“I don’t think you can call it an incubator when some of these leases have already been granted for 55 years, when some of these farms are already multigenerational,” Todd said.
Todd estimated that roughly 65 Big Islanders are on the Department of Agriculture’s agricultural lease waitlist, but added that not all of those people necessarily qualify for a lease or would actually try to develop an active farm.
He added that many of the Big Island ag park lots are either uncleared — therefore requiring a large amount of up-front capital just to be usable — or are not actually being used as farms by their lessees.
While Todd said the intent of the bill was for only lessees with active farms to be eligible for an extension, the final version of the bill contains no language ensuring such a thing.
Both Shiigi and Todd said that Green has been more receptive to the proposal than Ige was. Shiigi said Green spoke with him and other farmers through videoconference calls earlier this year to hear their requests.
Despite this, the Department of Agriculture remains a holdout against the bill. During the bill’s final committee hearing in March, the department issued testimony not explicitly opposing the measure, but still advising against its intent.
“HDOA appreciates the plight of lessees nearing the termination dates of their lease. However, it is our understanding that there is a public policy against allowing individual private interests to exclusively occupy, use and benefit from public lands for the durations exceeding statutory limits or indefinitely,” read the statement.
The DOA statement went on to stress that there are 243 people on its waitlist for lands throughout the state, and that all lessees know going into the program that their leases cannot exceed 55 years.
Nonetheless, Todd said the DOA’s position on the measure has softened since last year, and said their concerns about balancing opportunities for new farmers with maximizing the productive use of public lands can be accommodated.
“I’m hoping it will work out. I’m feeling optimistic,” Shiigi said. “This was my dream for years, and now it’s going to be my daughter’s dream.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at email@example.com.
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