Rob Parsons

AG Lands and the 'M' Word

What's going on with Maui's agricultural zoning?

by Rob Parsons

November 22, 2007

Can you tell this is ag land? photo: Rob Parsons.

Jo Anne Johnson, West Maui's County Council representative, has seen enough. "We've lost sight of our community plan," she said recently before boldly going where few have ventured before-to proposing a moratorium on agricultural subdivisions in her district until traffic impact fees are adopted.

Such impact fees have been required since 1988, but only after the development of a regional transportation model, which has never been completed and approved. Thus the West Maui region-associated with traffic tie-ups more so than anywhere else on the island-is handcuffed as far as receiving mandated developer contributions for roadway infrastructure.

Meanwhile, multi-million dollar homes continue to go up on large lots in agriculturally zoned subdivisions, with no review of impacts and with barely a nod to something that resembles farming. "There's no planning going on," Johnson said. "Just sprawl."

Johnson is quick to note that her proposed bill is not a "takings" and wouldn't prevent owners from farming their property. She knows this is just a temporary step-and probably an unpopular one with many-to stimulate discussion and begin to address existing problems.

"While large parcel 'gentleman's' estates on ag lands may have been a passing fancy for wealthy buyers, it has taken a toll by changing the character of some of our communities."

Johnson believes there may be insufficient water resources for the increasing residential density on ag lands, and that the county can't afford to provide all the essential services. She feels that we need to revisit the definition of ag lands, overhaul the rural zoning bill and discontinue Condominium Project Regimes on farms.

Council Planning Committee Chair Gladys Baisa has begun deliberations on a bill to require council review of agricultural subdivisions. Then-council member Wayne Nishiki first introduced the bill in 2002. He also proposed a moratorium while the matter was being discussed.

Maui County's agricultural zoning bill hasn't been amended since it got a complete makeover in 1998. At that time, a sliding scale was introduced for subdividing agricultural lands, limiting the number of two-acre parcels a developer could obtain from a large tract. Previously, Maui had been sprouting two-acre "gentlemen's estates" like mushrooms popping up after a rain.

The disposition of ag lands closely followed the closing of Pioneer Mill's sugar plantation in West Maui and Wailuku Sugar's operation in Central Maui. Other large plantation owners, Alexander & Baldwin and Maui Land & Pineapple, also continue to convert croplands to upscale subdivisions.

Wailuku Sugar Company grew cane for more than a century before closing its mill and planting macadamia orchards in the late 1970's. Their name changed, too, to Wailuku Agribusiness. By 1999, they jettisoned their nut operation, citing cheaper macadamia nuts grown in Australia and Central America, and pests like the tropical nut borer.

Then in early 2002, C. Brewer-Wailuku Ag's parent company-announced that they would sell all of their 21,000 acres on Maui. "This is not a fire sale," said State Senator Avery Chumbley, President of Wailuku Ag, who added that the company would seek local buyers, not off-island purchasers.

Among their land holdings were thousands of acres in the Waiehu-Waihe`e area, blessed with some of the most fertile soil and favorable growing conditions on Maui. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence that this area supported thousands of early Hawaiians many centuries ago. It's one of the relatively few areas on Maui where taro is still grown.

Some of the available lands were bought by Maui residents. The Betsill Brothers bought several tracts. John Varel, who grew up on a farm in Illinois, bought one large parcel bordering Waiehu Stream. Varel did something uncommon-he placed his 500-plus acres of agriculturally zoned land in a trust, so that it will be farmland in perpetuity.

Varel has a native plant nursery and has reforested about 10 acres in koa and other indigenous plants, with a goal of adding another 50 or 60 acres. He grows popular local fruits-pineapple, sugar, coconuts, lychee, mango and noni-and is close to markets in Wailuku and Kahului.

Varel has also been active in efforts to return diverted irrigation water to the streams to support native stream biota, which need sufficient flow to survive and to navigate upstream from the ocean after their larval stage. Na Wai Eha has teamed with Maui Tomorrow, Earthjustice, and the County of Maui to seek replenishment of stream flows in the four major streams of the area.

A contiguous parcel to Varel's was purchased by Patricia Bragg, Santa Barbara author of 22 "self-health" books and daughter of one of this country's pioneers in the field of health and wellness. Paul Bragg's Health and Happiness show aired back in the 1950's and inspired fitness guru Jack LaLanne to pursue a lifestyle of showing others how to be healthy. Bragg's Liquid Aminos and Bragg's Apple Cider Vinegar are staples in many health-conscious kitchens.

Thus, when Patricia Bragg promised to keep her 553-acre parcel productive as the "breadbasket of Maui," Varel and others were pleased.

But public records show that Bragg asked the Maui County Department of Public Works' Development Services Administration (DSA) Division to examine her land title in April 2006. She asked that the County identify 25 old Land Court Awards on her Tax Map Key and verify them as separate parcels.

This administrative process does not incorporate any public review or input. It is generally asked of DSA when an owner is seeking "reconsolidation and subdivision."

This means Bragg may choose to do what others in the area have successfully done-subdivide a large agricultural parcel into the maximum amount of developable smaller parcels and reap the profits. Without the requirement of public review of agricultural subdivisions by our decision makers, the entire process can take place below the community's radar.

Yet there is another viable possibility, and one that would not require a property owner to forfeit the opportunity to profit from land purchase and sale, while keeping prime ag lands in farming.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRDC), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), offers the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP). A landowner may obtain property appraisals at agriculture use rates, and at future development rates. The difference between the two amounts may be eligible to the property owner through this federal program, should they agree to place their land in a perpetual trust for agricultural production or other purposes such as conservation easements.

While large parcel "gentlemen's estates" on ag lands may have been a passing fancy for wealthy buyers, it has taken a toll by changing the character of some of our communities. Ironically, some residential Kahului neighborhoods may be producing more fruits and vegetables than some quasi-agricultural subdivisions.

As we look to sustain an ever-growing population of Maui residents and visitors, we will be wise to consider innovative ways to keep lands in active production of growing the foods we need to survive. Our ag zoning seems to be in a "growing pains" phase and needs some cultivation to adapt to current and future needs for our community. As public forums arise to discuss these strategies, it may behoove us all to listen carefully and to provide input to ensure a viable future for agriculture on Maui.