A bill that would relax regulations for tourism operations on farm land is coming back before the Hawaii County Council’s Planning Committee.
The bill, the version Puna Councilman Zendo Kern introduced earlier this year, got favorable nods from the Windward and Leeward planning commissioners earlier this year. Last year, former Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd introduced a draft bill the council was unable to approve or amend to council members’ satisfaction.
The Planning Committee meets at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center.
Kern’s measure, Bill 25, splits agricultural activities into major and minor operations.
Minor operations would limit annual visitors to 5,000, with a maximum 100 visitors per week. The minor operation also cannot have vehicles with more than 15 passengers access the property. A major operation would be allowed up to 30,000 visitors per year.
Testimony before the Leeward Planning Commission on Kern’s proposal was split evenly between supporters and opponents.
Honaunau coffee farmer Louise Winn told commissioners in May she worried about unintended consequences from allowing more tours on agricultural land.
“I also worry about visitors tracking in harmful insects and plant species from other areas,” Winn said, according to a meeting transcript. “We coffee farmers have been severely impacted by coffee borer beetle, coqui frogs and all kinds of funguses. The last thing we can stand is more migration of alien stuff.”
Barbara DeFranco, of Paleaku Peace Gardens, also cautioned planning commissioners about the need for safeguards. She noted her own gardens had to go through a special use permit application to be able to do certain tourism-oriented activities. She also questioned who would be keeping track of how many visitors actually visited farms.
“That’s the problem with almost anything, that enforcement is difficult,” Leithead Todd said. “Like anything, we are to a certain extent complaint-driven in terms of investigation, because I don’t have investigators that can go out on a regular basis.”
The problem, right now, Leithead Todd added, was the proliferation of “under-the-table ag tourism” happening in Hawaii County.
“Unless somebody complains about something, we are not going to hear about it,” she added.
The Hawaii Agri Tourism Association, a statewide, Hilo-based organization, testified before both commissions asking for the daily visitor limits to be omitted.
“That is so stringent,” Executive Director Lani Weigert told Windward Planning Commissioners in June. “I mean, a lot of the farmers may get, maybe one day they get two vans and then the whole week they don’t get anybody. … It’s so strict there’s no farmers that are going to be able to get out of the gate.”
Weigert said if commissioners were opposed to removing the limit entirely, they should impose a weekly limit instead.
Windward Planning commissioners did not make any recommendations to change the proposed bill before returning it to the council’s Planning Committee.