BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Former Gov. Benjamin Cayetano will join former Gov. John Waihee and State Sen. Clayton Hee, D-Kahaluu, in testifying against the Hoopili project, a master planned development project on Oahu’s Ewa plain that could add as many as 11,500 new homes and incorporate the city’s proposed $5.3 billion elevated steel rail system into its so called “sustainable living community.”

But construction of both the Hoopili project and the rail are under protest by a number of environmentalists and community activists and leaders who don’t want to see Ewa further developed, especially if it means the loss of fertile farm land that is growing increasingly rare on Oahu’s well developed land.

Cayetano, a candidate for Honolulu mayoral who hopes to stop the rail project either by being elected mayor or through a federal lawsuit against the project that he joined, will speak against the Hoopili plan at a March 15 state Land Use Commission hearing.

Hoopili rendering

Cayetano told Hawaii Reporter: “There is a need for housing but Hoopili is located on some of the finest farm land on Oahu, if not the state. DR Horton, the owner of the lands, will clearly benefit from the proposed rail project which suggests one possible reason why the city decided to begin rail construction in that area rather than from downtown.”

“Once the LUC reclassifies the land and if the rail project is ever built, a large part of the finest farm land on Oahu will be gone forever,” Cayetano added.

Meanwhile, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, is supporting the project and the rail development.

The project developers bill Hoopili as a “coming together” of communities and residents. They were able to recruit key farmers impacted by the rail and Hoopili projects to endorse the plan.

Aloun Farms Alec Sou is now a spokesperson for the project and is doing radio commercials in support. Alec and his brother Mike have been in the news for the last three years after they were charged in 2009 by the federal government in a forced labor conspiracy for their alleged mistreatment of 44 Thai laborers they brought to work on their farm in 2004. The brothers plead guilty in 2010 to one count of forced labor, and changed their legal team and their plea in 2011, before the federal government dropped the case in the middle of the trial in August 2011 on what many legal observers believe was a technicality.

Dean Okimoto, the head of Nalo Farms in Waimanalo, and a campaign chair for former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and his plan to construct the 20-mile rail system from Kapolei to Honolulu, also is endorsing the Hoopili plan. Okimoto, who farms on the other side of the island, said: “As a farmer myself, I think it is important that agricultural production will continue at Ho‘opili at the current scale for a very long time to come.”

Developers on the projects web site claim there’s been misinformation about Ho‘opili and what it means for local agriculture. They say Ho‘opili will not displace the last farmable land on Oahu becauseHawaii has more than 280,000 acres of arable, high-quality land reserved for agriculture and Ho‘opili’s 1,375 acres of arable land represents about 0.5% of this total.”

They also say farming will continue in the Ho‘opili community, only it will use less land and water, and that not that much land is needed to continue to produce the 30 percent of total fruits and vegetables Hawaii residents and visitors consume.

“In order for Hawaii to attain 100% self-sufficiency, an additional 30,000 acres of land is required. Currently, there are over 170,000 acres of fallow prime agriculture land available Statewide and 30,000 acres on O‘ahu,” the developers said.

But activists and community leaders are not buying the developer’s public relations effort.

On the web site StopHoopili.com, the group Save Oahu Farmland details their opposition to the project, arguing “What happens to our farmland in Ewa will impact our lives and Hawaii’s future forever.”

They add: “They call it Ho’opili – Coming together. We call it Ho`opilikia – Deep trouble for all of us.”

The Save Oahu Farmlands Alliance has organized several events to keep opposition in the news including a Tractor Convoy on February 21 that went around the state capitol and city hall, and a Farm Festival on February 25, which featured fresh produce, entertainment and an update on the project. Organizers say Hoopili will destroy essential farm land, increase traffic and harm Hawaii’s sustainability efforts.

The two sides are set to debate the project before the Land Use Commission on March 15.

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