Defining Rural Land: State Seeks Public Participation

Swimming pools, shopping malls, gambling casinos, and La’au Point development were but a few of the several dozen things Molokai citizens listed as potential threats to their rural existence at a high-attendance  roundtable discussion held at Mitchell Paoule center on August 15.   At a Rural Land Use workshop led by Executive Officer Anthony Ching of the State Land Use Commission, participants had a chance to weigh in on potential changes to the State Land Use Law (chapter 205, Hawaii Revised Statutes) governing rural lands.  

Ching explained that the primary purpose of the meeting was to gather information on what Molokai Residents think defines a rural community—what they like about their rural community, what changes they fear might compromise it, and how they might go about preserving it. 

The discussion took the form of a rapid, roundtable brainstorming session, and a recorder took notes on poster board for all to see. Participants were only permitted to speak when it was their turn, and could only mention one topic at a time.   When more than one participant raised the same concern, a tally mark was placed on the board next to the topic.  Although Ching stressed that the meeting was “not about La’au,” “No to La’au” was a recurring comment and received the most tally marks.  Ching held an informational meeting earlier in the day in Ho’olehua regarding the process for intervening in the zoning change (from Ag to Rural) for the proposed La’au point development.

Other items in the “No” category were no foreign companies, no gated communities, no private roads, and no tall buildings.  Figuring out what people did like about Molokai as a rural community was slower going, and harder to fit into one-liners. “I like that when you watch the Superbowl at Hotel Molokai, roosters walk right through the bar,” said one participant.  Friendliness, open space, opportunities for agriculture, and cultural emphasis were also added to the list.  During the third, “How do we do it?” portion of the discussion, most comments emphasized the importance of local control.  Suggestions included designating Molokai its own county, making all of Molokai a Special Management Area, and instating a Molokai representative to participate in all decision-making processes in Maui.  Looking toward the long-term future of rural Molokai, John Sabas, Molokai Ranch Community Affairs Manager, said that he would like to see a “reemphasis on agricultural and technical training in the schools.”

 In the informational session that preceded the discussion, Ching explained that part of the purpose of redefining the rural land designation was to ensure that the agricultural districts remain primarily for agriculture.  “We have a whole lot of development on Ag land that doesn’t look smell, or quack like Ag land,” he said.    In the entire state of Hawaii, only approximately 10,000 acres are currently defined as rural, partially because the state definitions are vague and difficult to apply at county level.  The rest of state land falls under conservation, agricultural, or urban.  “The state can decide what rural land looks like,” he said, “but each community needs to develop the laws and regulations that make it happen.  Who wants someone in Honolulu telling you what to do?” 

But after the meeting,  Participants Victoria and Bill Kapuni expressed doubts about the relevance of the Land Use Commission’s new framework to a place as Rural as Molokai. “Every single place on Molokai is probably more rural than any place on any other island,” said Victoria, who pointed out that putting the power back in the hands of the county is unlikely to impress anyone on Molokai.  “The people over in Maui don’t understand what’s going on here,” she said. 

Glenn Teves, who has been researching the question of rural land designation for some time, says he thinks the meetings were “a good start,” but he believes the vision for the future of Molokai as a rural community needs further definition.  “I think we have a real clear picture of what we don’t want on Molokai,” he said, “but it’s important to focus on what we want…what we envision for the future.  Rural can be a community unto itself.”

 Teves highlighted the importance of “gathering places” such as the Kualapuu store and the Kekeola Cooperative in Ho`olehua, where Molokai citizens go to talk story, share information, and discuss critical issues about the island.  This type of casual community interaction stands in stark contrast to the type of “Gentlemen’s Estates” that Teves and other workshop participants shunned.  “Those are the sort of places that say ‘stay away from us,’” said Teves, “We know we don’t want that, but we need to figure out how to stop it…on what kind of guidelines we must have in place.”  He noted that last week’s meetings will be followed up by future, more specific discussions, once the LUC returns with a distillation of the information they gathered on Molokai.  Complete information can be found on the Land Use Commission website at 


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