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Ag-tourism bill resurfaces

July 17, 2014 - 12:05am

A bill expanding agricultural tourism was one of the first measures introduced by Puna Councilman Zendo Kern when he took office in late 2012. After numerous delays, it may become among his last to clear the County Council before he leaves.

The council is scheduled to consider Bill 25 at its meeting Friday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. The public can testify by videoconference from the Hilo council chambers, the Waimea council office, the Kohala county facility, the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center or the Pahoa neighborhood facility. The meeting starts at 9 a.m.

Kern has decided not to seek re-election after one two-year term. He sent a letter to Council Chairman J Yoshimoto on July 7 with a “humble request” for Yoshimoto to schedule the bill, which was last heard Sept. 5.

“I have a few different amendments I will be introducing that I think will address some of the concerns,” Kern said Wednesday. “I think we can find a balance; I think the way it is coming out will make sense.”

The bill would create a “minor” agritourism classification to make it easier for small farmers to engage in a practice already enjoyed by large agricultural operations — giving tours to visitors, usually for a fee, and selling related agricultural and nonagricultural products at a gift shop.

An agritourism bill has been in the works for at least three years. Kern’s version has been modified some since it encountered resistance at the Windward Planning Commission, which Kern formerly chaired.

He’s been trying to draft a measure balancing the needs of small farmers and would-be agritourism businesses with rural neighbors who worry about impacts like increased traffic and noise. The council worked on the bill last month, and Kern has a few more amendments after hearing from the council and the community.

The bill proposes splitting agricultural activities into major and minor operations. Minor operations would limit annual visitors to 5,000, with a maximum 100 visitors per week. A major operation would be allowed up to 30,000 visitors per year.

Major agritourism operations would still need plan approval, while minor ones would not. Both types would be required to turn over financial records upon the request of the planning department to verify compliance.

North Kona Council- woman Karen Eoff, along with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, had previously submitted amendments based on community concerns.

Eoff had been particularly concerned that there was no registration process for small agritourism firms, since they don’t have to go through a plan approval process. Kern also planned to clarify hours of operation to 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the summer and 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the winter.

Amendments would limit minor operations to 100 visitors a week, while keeping the 5,000 annual limit, and raise the permit fee from $25 to $100, Kern said.

Proponents such as the Hawaii Agritourism Association say the bill will help small farmers survive fluctuations in the economy and weather by providing a supplemental source of income that’s more reliable. Opponents worry the measure will pull farmers away from their primary occupation of food production, while increasing the value of agricultural land and property taxes.

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