Prospects are good that a bill will pass this legislative session allowing experimental sustainability communities in Maui and Hawaii counties, following the appointment of a House-Senate conference committee and dismissal of ethics charges against the bill’s sponsor.
SB 2274, sponsored by Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Puna Democrat, would require the two counties to create a specialized permit for the sustainable living sites on parcels of less than 15 acres within the rural and agricultural districts. The only difference between the House and Senate version is the minimum size of the lots, Ruderman said Monday.
The House version sets the minimum at 1 acre while the Senate sets it at 1/2 acre. Ruderman said he prefers the House version.
The conference committee has not yet set a meeting date. The bill passed the Senate with one opponent and the House with 16 voting no.
The sites would promote a live-in environment that emphasizes conservation, waste re-use, organic foods, renewable energy and shared living.
State Ethics Commission Staff Attorney Megan Y.S. Johnson, in a letter to Ruderman on Thursday, said the commission staff “does not believe there is sufficient indication of any misuse of your official position to justify further investigation.”
S. Sativa Sultan, a Seaview Estates resident, and eight others signed a letter asking for an investigation into what they characterize as special interest legislation sponsored by a state senator on behalf of a tax-exempt nonprofit campaign supporter who is not registered as a state lobbyist. Sultan is worried about the profusion of unpermitted communities cropping up as neighbors.
“In our opinion, the ethics commission’s decision not to carry the investigation further does not exonerate Sen. Ruderman; it indicates that the bar for measuring political ethics has reached an all time low,” Sultan said. “We don’t think it’s fair that Les Kondo, director of the state Ethics Commission, told Sen. Ruderman that he had nothing to worry about before the attorney Megan Johnson could even present our case. There is no way for the little guy to overcome this kind of cronyism.”
Ruderman called the complaint “absurd,” saying of course he sponsors bills for constituents, “because that’s what I’m supposed to do.”
“I support constituent ideas whether they come from supporters or nonsupporters,” Ruderman said.
Graham Ellis, president of the Hawaii Sustainable Community Alliance and a Ruderman campaign supporter, has been leading the charge for the bill for four years. He said Monday that a recent speech in Honolulu by former Vice President Al Gore points to an urgent need for research into creating sustainable communities.
“Sustainable living research has been going on a long time, and we’re trying to create a legal framework for it,” Ellis said.
He said supporters far outnumber opponents. The Hawaii County Council is a supporter, he said, adding the council unanimously approved a resolution urging the Legislature to pass the measure.
Supporters say the research sites would provide data for the implementation of the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan, reduce waste going to the landfill, promote the development of think tanks focusing on sustainable research and development, reduce dependence on imported food and increase employment in small business sustainable enterprises, among other pluses.
Opponents include neighbors of such proposed sites who worry about noise, unsanitary conditions, a deterioration of the neighborhoods and lower property values. Two state agencies also oppose the plan.
“The Department of Agriculture supports efforts to increase food production and promote agricultural education,” said Agriculture Department chairman Scott Enright in testimony to legislative committees. “However, we feel that agricultural production should be the primary activity on agricultural lands.”
The state Office of Planning had similar concerns in its testimony. Planning officials said there are already mechanisms in place for just such experiments. Officials also worried that allowing more such experimental living sites could further dissuade farmers from working and investing in their farms because of fear of ensuing development.