MAKAWAO - Upcountry farmers said this week that they have concerns about proposals to change the way agricultural lands are taxed.
A number of landowners said any changes that increased what they pay in property taxes could put small farmers and ranchers out of business. Others questioned how the proposal would affect people who stop farming because of old age.
"I'm retired, and I'm worried about how we're going to afford this," said former persimmon farmer Blanche Ito. "All of a sudden, we're faced with this new bill that might increase my taxes, and that concerns me."
Pulehuiki farmer Donald Ito wires a deer fence back in place after passing through a gate Wednesday afternoon. Ito said he spent $10,000 last year on fencing to slow down the depredations of deer, birds and thieves on the persimmon farm that has been under cultivation by his family since the 1930s. He said his crops last year brought in $5,000. Maui County Council members are considering legislation that would tax the land under a home on an agricultural lot in the same way as a regular residential property.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Ito was among around 40 residents who attended a special meeting of the Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee on Monday night at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao.
The committee is considering legislation that would tax the land under a home on an agricultural lot in the same way as a regular residential property.
Currently, an agricultural house lot is taxed as a percentage of the larger parcel's total value, often resulting in a significantly lower amount than what a similar lot in a residential neighborhood would be worth. Council members have said the measure would be a first step in bringing more equity to the property tax system.
But several testifiers questioned that idea.
"I don't think that correlates to an equity in services," said Haliimaile Pineapple Co. and Maui County Farm Bureau President Darren Strand.
Property owners in residential areas might pay more in taxes, but they also receive more amenities, he said.
"I live on East Kuiaha Road, and I can't wait for the sidewalks and streetlights," he said.
"This purports to equate residential homes with residential homes on agricultural lands," said William Hess, agreeing that agricultural homes don't receive the same government services as residential neighborhoods. "It doesn't seem to me that it's the exact same situation."
Edwin Ferreira said living on his farm means waking up in the middle of the night to attend to loose livestock and other emergencies.
"These are some of the things that someone in a residential area is not going to have to put up with," he said. "We're there on the property to maintain it and interact with the animals."
A number of testifiers said they understood the need to separate legitimate farmers from gentlemen's estates that aren't engaging in real agriculture. But some wondered what would happen to them after they became too old to farm their land anymore.
"My grandfather, father and now I have worked on this farm, and I'm getting older," said Paul Sentani. "Maybe in another 10 years or so I'm not going to be able to farm. What's going to happen to my property tax?"
"I think you should really give consideration to the retirees," agreed Donald Fujitani, who said he no longer farms commercially but still engages in subsistence farming.
Farm Bureau Vice President Carver Wilson said his members agreed the tax code should separate "real" farmers from gentlemen's estates, but opposed the current proposal.
"We stand against any tax increase that would affect our bottom line as farmers, and this bill does that," he said.
But Kula Community Association Vice President Bobbie Patnode said the proposal would "reaffirm" the county's support of agriculture.
"The KCA board supports the taxing of ag-zoned land which is not being used for agricultural purposes in the same manner as nonag land," she said.
The Budget and Finance Committee is scheduled to have an informational meeting to explain the proposed legislation at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 14 in eighth-floor Council Chambers of the Kalana O Maui building.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.