Ho‘opili against hope

Land Use Commission hearings continue on massive development

The State Land Use Commission’s ongoing hearings on the Ho‘opili development project continued today in Honolulu, where the nine commissioners and a packed gallery heard testimony from a range of professionals and the public. Prominent economist Paul Brewbaker, University of Hawai‘i soil scientist Jonathan Deenik and longtime local journalist and historian Tom Coffman appeared in the morning, called by community activist and Ho‘opili opponent Keoni Dudley, who has intervenor status in the process. Developer DR Horton Hawai‘i, which seeks to build roughly 12,000 homes on what is now farmland on the Ewa plain, presented water engineer Tom Nance in the afternoon to rebut previous testimony by development opponents. 

Throughout the day, orange-shirted supporters of the project vastly outnumbered opponents, both in the gallery and in the crowd of sign-wavers on Beretania Street below.

State Senator Will Espero (D-20) appeared first, having been granted a waiver to testify prior to the public comment period in deference to his legislative schedule. Espero, who once worked for DR Horton and other ‘Ewa development interests, testified that his support for the Ho‘opili project had “nothing to do with my prior employment, by with my desire to see the realization of the ‘second city’ that has been discussed for decades.” Espero pointed to the growing need for new housing on O‘ahu and told commissioners that Ho‘opili was consistent with existing state development principles.

“I believe the future price and cost of island housing and the discussions to follow will far outweigh discussions on the price of fruits and vegetables for our residents,” Espero said in prepared remarks. “Even with Ho‘opili, Hawai‘i’s agriculture industry can grow.”

A different picture

Brewbaker, the longtime Bank of Hawai‘i economist now in private practice, began with broad remarks about the economic function cities as a way to approach the much-discussed concept of “the second city” – Kapolei.

“I remember being involved in early discussions [about Kapolei]…the concept I was pitched was about a clear, segregated, free-standing urban center with an open-space boundary. Somehow, that morphed into this gigantic continuous conurbation, which is one city, not a second city. It’s like Hawai‘i Kai as opposed to whatever they thought it was going to be.”

Asked whether the Ho‘opili project made sense from a public policy point of view, Brewbaker said, “No. From that perspective, you would start urbanizing agricultural land on the worst land and work your way up the list as necessary.”

Brewbaker further suggested that even that model would be inefficient. “In my mind, the 21st century solution is to fold the development into the urban core, to more intensively use that core, to use higher density.”

Residential development, Brewbaker said, is permanent. He asked why the state would want to take a gamble with such productive agricultural land.

“For example, we may wake up 50 years from now finding that growing energy crops is a big part of our energy needs. If we don’t preserve those options and keep them open, they’ll be gone.”

Deenik, the soil scientist, testified on the results of soil-quality surveys he has conducted in the area, reporting that 90 percent of the Ho‘opili lands are “high-activity” clay soils that are highly viable for agricultural production. Of those, 50 percent of the soils are among the two most valuable, out of twelve overall soil types on Earth, for food production.

Contemporary history

Coffman, a longtime political reporter who has written extensively about contemporary Hawai‘i politics and history, told commissioners about his work in the 1990s and early 2000s preparing public presentation materials for former landowner Campbell Estate. Echoing Brewbaker’s remarks, Coffman testified that the materials he was asked to produce, which were used in what he described as a “massive” outreach campaign to explain Kapolei’s future to elected officials and opinion-leaders, described “preservation of rich agricultural land, some compact urban development, and protection of the watershed on the mountain above.”

As a result of Campbell Estate’s outreach, Coffman said, “this became the basis of state’s commitment to a second city.” But in the mid-2000s, Coffman testified, under pressure from beneficiaries of the Estate, plans changed, and the Estate sold off virtually all of its ‘Ewa holdings, including Ho‘opili, to developers.

“Eager buyers gambled financially on the city [General] plan becoming the operative plan and on [the LUC] falling in line. They gambled on you forgetting your primary historical mission. Your job as defined by the authors of the 1959 land-use law is disarmingly simple: to protect compact urban development and to protect prime agricultural land.”

Asked how he felt about the change in vision for ‘Ewa from a distinct, green-belted area with limited residential development to the Ho‘opili plan, Coffman said, “I felt that the public trust, a kind of public compact between Campbell Estate and policy makers and opinion leaders, had been violated. And I felt ill-used in the process.”

Under questioning from DR Horton attorneys about why he had not factored in the City and County’s General Plan for O‘ahu, which pointed to residential growth on the Ewa plain, Coffman said he ignored it, under the assumption that Campbell Estate’s plan and the state’s vision for the area would hold sway.

Coffman left commissioners with the observation that “City plans [including the O‘ahu General Plan] should be looked at very critically. And the reason is that the city government is exclusively reliant on property tax for its funding, so it has an inherent inclination toward any kind of development that will produce revenue. The state LUC must therefore continue to function as it was intended in the 1959 law as our most essential institution for land use.”

The Land Use Commission’s hearings on Ho‘opili are tentatively scheduled to continue on April 4 and 5. For information and updates, see the LUC website at http://luc.state.hi.us/