Farm worker housing bill faces new challenges

News Report
Joan Conrow
Moloaa hui landowners have lobbied for a new farm worker housing bill.

KAUAI—A controversial farm worker housing bill, set to be taken up again by the Kauai County Council on Wednesday, is facing new challenges.

The county water department has announced it won?t issue extra meters for farm worker housing, which means that farmers must have a private water supply if they want to increase the density of their land.

The Kauai Farm Bureau, which has not endorsed the bill out of fear it will be used to create vacation rentals, is planning to conduct a test case through an existing law that allows temporary housing. The provision has never been applied to farm worker housing, but if such a use flies, it could raise doubts as to whether a new law is needed.

Meanwhile, the bill has been layered with proposed new safeguards aimed at preventing abuse. These include requiring applicants to obtain a use permit, which includes a public hearing and more rigorous review. Under the most recent draft, farmland owners seeking increased density also would be required to dedicate their land to agricultural uses for 10 years.

The bill has been promoted as a way to boost agriculture on Kauai by ensuring the survival of small, primarily organic farms that can?t afford to pay workers a wage high enough to rent houses on the open market.

But Farm Bureau members and others have questioned whether it?s primarily intended to benefit landowners within the Moloaa hui, where farm lots originally sold for just $10,000 per acre because they did not include any house sites.

In recent months, land prices have increased substantially within the Moloaa hui, according to real estate listings, apparently in anticipation of the housing rights that could be granted under the bill.

In the years since the land was originally sold, many of the farmers have erected unpermitted buildings that they and their workers occupy. When the county began taking enforcement measures against these dwellings, the landowners sought the support of County Council members for a law that would legitimize the structures.

Farmers in Moloaa also have an edge over other ag land owners because they have a private water source, which would allow them to increase density on their land without the need to secure county water meters.

In recent months, land prices have increased substantially within the Moloaa hui, according to real estate listings, apparently in anticipation of the housing rights that could be granted under the bill.

Although the measure has been promoted as contributing to a resurgence of agriculture on Kauai, it has failed to pick up support among a broad spectrum of farmers, as well as the Farm Bureau’s endorsement.

The proposed ordinance also ran into opposition from the county planning department, which said the law would be difficult to enforce. In offering its review of the bill, the department noted the ?vague distinction between transient accommodations and/or activities (i.e. agro and eco-tourism) and genuine farm laboring (as done by either permanent or migrant labor), and the potential for the bill to be abused.?

Since the measure was introduced, it has gone through numerous revisions intended to tighten it up. More changes are expected when it returns to the County Council?s planning committee on Wednesday.

The planning committee still needs to hammer out details pertaining to the number of hours per week a farm laborer must work to qualify for housing, the extent of the farming operation, the maximum size of the structure, and the inspection process.

Committee members also must decide whether both permanent and temporary structures will be permitted, as the bill now proposes. The Farm Bureau has advocated for temporary structures only, a restriction that could prevent Moloaa hui farmers without house sites from living legally on their land.

Advocates for temporary housing say it lessens the potential for abuse because it would authorize housing, rather than increased density, which adds value to the land. The planning department also noted that ordering the removal of a permanent structure is a cumbersome and legally contentious process.

The bill was written by former Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura and introduced by Councilman Jay Furfaro, who has acknowledged it will be challenging to close all the potential loopholes in the law.

Still, he said the county sometimes must be willing to ?take a risk? if it means helping farmers, a stance that?s been echoed by Councilmembers Dickie Chang and Tim Bynum.