Effort to transfer state farmland survives final hurdle
Long-standing plans to transfer farmland from the Hawaii Lands and Resources agency to the Department of Agriculture ran into new difficulties this week in the Legislature.
Amendments added to a bill to further facilitate the transfer introduced provisions that could raise concerns from agricultural and environmental groups.
House Bill 1658 was originally intended to secure access to land currently managed by the Department of Lands and Natural Resources. Amendments introduced by Senator Lorraine Inouye at a hearing on Wednesday added requirements that the DOA accept all land transfers offered by the DLNR, that the DLNR retain control of conservation lands, and that tenants of lands in the DOAs containing significant natural resources develop conservation plans.
The amendments could reintroduce long-running disagreements between environmental and agricultural interest groups over which agency is best suited to manage land on state farms and ranches and their tenants.
HB 1658 was one of four bills introduced this year by Representative David Tarnas to facilitate land transfer. The bills reflected recommendations from the Bill 90 Task Force, a coalition of lawmakers and agency representatives co-chaired by Tarnas and Inouye. Another draft law resulting from the conclusions of the working group was presented by Inouye.
Three of the four House bills died in the Senate, and Inouye’s bill was killed in the House by Tarnas.
The amendments introduced by Inouye this week were added to the only remaining bill reflecting the work of the Act 90 group, HB 1658.
The amended bill was passed without objection by the Senate Agriculture, Water, and Land Committees.
Efforts to change the law
The Legislature passed Act 90 in 2003, to facilitate the transfer of non-farm parkland from the DLNR to the DOA, upon mutual agreement of the agencies’ boards.
As of the start of this year, only 19,000 acres had been transferred due to DLNR concerns that the natural resources of these agricultural plots could be mismanaged or lost under the direction of the DOA.
The Act 90 task force was formed last year to investigate key barriers to transfer and identify solutions.
The Tarnas bills reflected the group’s recommendations, such as empowering the DLNR to grant better tenancy terms to farmers or requiring the development of plans and funding for conservation projects on farmland.
The Senate bill introduced by Inouye addressed several different issues in the transfer process, including removing the need for the two agencies to agree on land identified for transfer – a key sticking point for the DLNR. , which wants to oversee the conservation of natural resources on the lands in question.
The ‘no questions asked’ land transfer was what Tarnas said he and DLNR originally opposed.
“I wanted to stay true to Law 90 but (Inouye’s bill) directly changed Law 90,” Tarnas said.
The amended HB 1658 eliminates the requirement for mutual agreement.
For his part, Inouye affirms that the difficulties have lasted for too long and that Law 90 is outdated.
“Let’s move forward, this generation, so that we don’t spread problems and problems to future generations,” Inouye said.
Moana Bjur, executive director of the Conservation Council of Hawaii, says she thinks the bill was rushed to meet the filing deadline.
Bjur also found language in the amended bill regarding the roles of agencies in managing the land transfer regarding.
The fate of the bill remains uncertain.
“To be completely honest, I’m not sure this bill will move forward anyway,” Bjur said.
The revised bill has now returned to the House for further consideration. Inouye hopes the House will be sensitive to his revisions.
Tarnas, however, is optimistic that obstacles to land transfers can be overcome by the end of the next session.
Next year, the DLNR and DOA could be under new leadership following this year’s gubernatorial elections.
“If it turns out that the legislature isn’t taking action on it this session, the agencies will still have to move forward,” Tarnas said. “The ball is in their court and the agencies must continue their work.”
“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.