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Regents Approve 30m Telescope Lease; Permit Under Cloud

February 21, 2014, 4:02 PM HST (Updated February 21, 2014, 5:02 PM) · 0 Comments
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The future of the Thirty Meter Telescope was debated Thursday in two arenas located more than 200 miles apart.

Meeting in Honolulu, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents approved a 5-acre sublease in the Mauna Kea Science Reserve for the $1 billion observatory.

Regents voted 13-1 to approve the lease, with student member Jeffrey Acido voting against it. Maui Regent Eugene Bal III did not attend the meeting.

The lease includes a departure from those granted existing telescopes, which pay a nominal fee for their use of space on the mountain.

The TMT would pay lease rates beginning at $300,000 during construction and rising to $1 million annually when the observatory begins operating, which is currently scheduled for 2022.

Meanwhile, both opponents and supporters of the project rallied at 3rd Circuit Court in Hilo where a hearing was held on a court challenge.

Judge Greg Nakamura heard arguments on an appeal filed in May 2013 by a coalition of native Hawaiians, environmentalists and others who say the state Board of Land and Natural Resources last year improperly granted the TMT project a permit for construction in a conservation area.

The plaintiffs say the permit should not have been granted in 2011 before completion of a contested case hearing on the process. A hearing officer overseeing the hearing ruled in November 2012 that the project could move forward.

Plaintiffs on Thursday said that a Supreme Court ruling in December invalidating a permit for the telescope project on Haleakela on Maui – issued the same day oral arguments were held on the April appeal – also applies to the TMT.

But state Attorney General David M. Louie argued Thursday that there were fundamental differences between the two cases.

On Maui, the contested case hearing was granted two months after the permit was issued.

The TMT permit was issued the same day that the hearing was approved, and was conditional, meaning that no construction could take place until the hearing was completed.

TMT spokeswoman Sandra Dawson said that point was clear to the project’s developers, which include the California Institute of Technology and an international consortium of universities and governments.

“At that point we knew we couldn’t start construction,” she said.

Nakamura did not indicate when he would rule on the appeal.

Kealoha Pisciotta, spokeswoman for the group that appealed the permit, believes TMT supporters are incorrect in saying that the regents’ action Thursday opens the way for construction to begin.

“It doesn’t have any bearing on the court,” she said. “Nobody should be presuming this grants the telescope authority to move ahead, because it does not.”

According to Dawson, the only court outcome likely to derail the project would be if Nakamura revokes the permit outright.

With a mirror nearly 100 feet in diameter, the telescope would be larger than any other currently in operation on the planet.

An even bigger observatory, the Extremely Large Telescope with a mirror 130 feet in diameter, is planned for construction in Chile by the European Southern Observatory, an organization comprised of 15 member nations.

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