DeCosta’s agriculture bills stir concern Leave a Comment / Agriculture / By admin LIHU’E — A trifecta of land-designation bills dominated Wednesday’s Kaua’i County Council meeting, as members and a local lawyer questioned the basis of the legislation. Bill Nos. 2845 and 2847 would eliminate tree farm and orchard development tax exemptions in favor of the county’s existing standard agricultural land-dedication program. Bill No. 2846 would eliminate the valuation of wasteland, a land designation no longer utilized. All three bills were introduced by Councilmember Billy DeCosta with the support of the county’s Department of Finance earlier this year. DeCosta has described the legislation as a way to level the playing field for farmers of all kinds, claiming large landowners may favor tree farmers over other agricultural lessees in order to secure tax exemptions. Land-use attorney and former County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask emerged as a vocal critic of the legislation, delivering in-person testimony before the council’s Committee on Finance & Development. “These bills are agricultural cancel culture … these bills also violate the award-winning Kaua’i Kakou General Plan 2018, adopted as Ordinance 10-25,” Trask said. “According to the General Plan, all farmers, especially new farmers on Kaua’i, face barriers to farming, such as the high cost of labor, land and government regulations and stringent thresholds and rules for farmworker housing.” Page 170 of the Kaua’i General Plan cites a lack of tax incentives as an issue for active local agriculture. The same page also recommends revisions of agricultural property tax regime, including its agricultural land-dedication program, to increase incentives to lease for productive farms. “Simply put, if you raise property taxes or decrease tax incentives, this will translate into higher agricultural leases, making it more difficult for new, small-scale farmers to access ag opportunities given the lack of access to capital,” Trask said Wednesday. During a March meeting, Trask testedified that the county should provide food farmers with more relief rather than cut its tree farm and orchard programs. Trask has also pushed back against what he called attempts to characterize the bills as a local versus non-local issue. “I have been informed that the impression on social media is that these bills ‘are for the locals’ and will somehow stick it to the large landowners,” he said. “Neither is true.” Councilmembers also heard from resident Virginia Beck, who opposed the bill in written and oral testimony. Finance & Development Committee members Felicia Cowden, Luke Evslin and KipuKai Kuali’i expressed wariness in regard to the legislation, and made calls for more information. Committee Chair Evslin ultimately made a formal request to defer all three bills at the request of the Kaua’i Farm Bureau, noting they had asked for more time to review and comment on the legislation. In each case, committee members Evslin, Cowden and Kuali’i voted to approve the deferral, with DeCosta casting the sole “no” vote (Council Vice-Chair and Committee member Mason Chock was excused from the meeting). Dollars and cents County Department of Finance Director Reiko Matsuyama used a real-world example to illustrate the potential impact of the tree farm legislation: A 1,065-acre designated tree farm on Kaua’i now pays $422 per year in real property taxes, she said. The $422 stems from a building on the parcel. The tree farm itself generates $0 in annual taxes for no more than 25 years, or until its first harvest. “Under the current Ag-dedication program, their annual tax bill would increase to $8,200, so it’s quite substantial,” Matsuyama said. “It would be the same kind of rate that any diversified ag in an ag-dedication program would get.” If the 1,065-acre parcel of land had no tax relief, its owner would pay $68,500 in annual taxes. “It’s still a huge break to get into the ag-dedication program, as opposed to being set by market values,” Matsuyama said. ••• Scott Junkerreporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or email@example.com.