Tourism and agriculture. Two of the island’s economic engines that work well together.

That’s according to proponents of a measure that 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 more than two years. The latest version, Bill 25, scheduled to be heard Thursday by the Hawaii County Council, was proposed by freshman Puna Councilman and former Windward Planning Commission Chairman Zendo Kern.

Kern’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.

“Based on the discussions we have had, I’m hoping that the council will see this as a good thing that will help promote the agricultural industry,” Kern said Tuesday.

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.

The public can testify at 9:15 a.m. Thursday at the council meeting in Hilo or by videoconference from the Kona or Waimea council office or the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center. The Pahoa council office will not be open for testimony at this meeting.

North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff, along with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford, have submitted amendments based on community concerns.

Eoff has 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 is adding a registration process to the bill to be discussed Thursday.

He’s also clarifying 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.

Eoff hopes the bill can be delayed a little longer to ensure it’s the best it can be before moving it on to its final hearing later this month.

“I think the council wants to support ag tourism,” Eoff said, “(but) I think there should be a little more accountability. … I’m waiting to see how the new draft looks. The teeth in the ordinance, that’s what I think people are looking for.”

Kern notes that, like other land-use issues, enforcement comes through a complaint-driven process.

“It’s the same as a special use permit,” Kern said. “A complaint is received. An investigation is made. A letter is sent telling them to stop what they’re doing and get into compliance.”

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

By Nancy Cook Lauer
West Hawaii Today