Farmer claims ag bill morphs into something else


Howard Green thought he was helping farmers, like himself, sell more of their products directly to customers.

Instead, the bill he offered to lawmakers has raised concerns the state Legislature may again be trying to undermine county regulations on genetically modified crops and pesticides for the second time this session.

The legislation Green, an Oahu farmer and lawyer, said he wrote changes only a few words in a section on agriculture districts in the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

But the addition of “without further limitations or restrictions” in a sentence regarding allowed uses has some worried it could significantly limit the ability of counties to regulate agriculture, and pass laws, as Hawaii and Kauai counties did last year, addressing the use of modified crops and chemicals in agriculture.

Former Mayor Harry Kim, a critic of attempts by the Legislature to limit county home rule, said the companion legislation, Senate Bill 2777 and House Bill 2467, would have significant implications.

“I think a lot of people will be very surprised and maybe even stunned by it,” he said.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, called it a “sneaky … cynical attempt to take away home rule,” adding he has received email from constituents concerned about the legislation.

“I think the (genetically modified organism), pesticide issue is the motivation for it,” he said.

The concerns are not without merit.

Earlier this session, lawmakers introduced legislation, that appear dead, to limit the ability of counties to regulate agriculture in response to the laws Hawaii and Kauai counties passed.

But Green, owner of Green World coffee farm, said he wasn’t thinking of genetically modified crops when he wrote the legislation, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Lauren Matsumoto.

“It wasn’t part of the plan,” he said. “It was only intended to deal with the limited question of farmers being able to sell agriculture products.”

Green said the legislation is aimed at eliminating hurdles at the county level for farmers selling their products directly to customers.

In 2012, lawmakers adopted Act 113 to make it easier for farmers to conduct retail activities on their property, he said. Such efforts can still be limited by county-level regulations on the size of retail operations on farms (a problem Green said he ran into on Oahu), and he offered the bill to allow farmers to get around those local ordinances.

While arguably still a home rule issue, Green said the bill has been interpreted to have far wider implications than intended.

“I didn’t think about those additional issues,” he said, while acknowledging the legislation may not be specific enough.

“I didn’t know about them. I’m not involved in them.”

The Senate committees on Agriculture, Water and Land, and Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs will each consider SB 2777 on Thursday.

If the committees vote in favor of the measure, Green said he expects it to be amended to clarify its intent.

“Some of the senators have looked at it,” he said. “(They said), ‘We have a way of writing this law to be more narrow. There wouldn’t be any misunderstanding.’”

HB 2467 has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.