Of­fi­cials set April dead­line to de­cide fate of the Thirty Me­ter Tele­scope

Ar­gu­ments are set for March 15 on the is­sue of the tele­scope project’s sub­lease

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Timothy Hur­ley thur­ley@starad­ver­tiser.com

It’s com­ing down to the wire for the Thirty Me­ter Tele­scope, whose board of di­rec­tors aims to de­cide by April whether to build in Hawaii or the Ca­nary Is­lands.

The Hawaii Supreme Court this week set a March 15 date for oral ar­gu­ments over the ques­tion of whether the state must hold yet an­other TMT con­tested case hear­ing — this time on the project’s sub­lease.

In ad­di­tion, open­ing briefs are due at the high court Feb. 15 for anti-TMT forces who are ap­peal­ing the con­struc­tion per­mit that was awarded fol­low­ing the lengthy con­tested case hear­ing do-over in Hilo last year.

An­swer­ing briefs by per­mit ap­pli­cants Univer­sity of Hawaii and state Board of Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources are due March 27, with the appellants hav­ing 14 days to re­ply af­ter that.

De­spite the re­cent le­gal progress, it seems un­likely the clouds of un­cer­tainty hov­er­ing over the $1.4 bil­lion project will be to­tally clear by April.

The TMT In­ter­na­tional Ob­ser­va­tory board is putting on a brave face.

“TMT is pleased that the le­gal process is mov­ing for­ward and we re­main re­spect­ful of that process,” TMT spokesman Scott Ishikawa said in a state­ment Fri­day. “Mauna Kea is still our pre­ferred site for the Thirty Me­ter Tele­scope, and we con­tinue to as­sess the on­go­ing sit­u­a­tion.”

Mean­while the Cal­i­for­nia non­profit is con­tin­u­ing to lay the ground­work for a pos­si­ble exit to the Ca­nary Is­lands, a Span­ish ar­chi­pel­ago off the coast of north­west­ern Africa.

A de­mar­ca­tion cer­tifi­cate iden­ti­fy­ing a 24-acre site where the cut­ting-edge tele­scope would be built high on a La Palma is­land moun­tain is ex­pected to be signed next week, ac­cord­ing to a re­port on TMT’s new Span­ish-lan­guage web­site, tmt­la­palma.org.

On Dec. 18 the La Palma is­land coun­cil signed the

land over to the In­sti­tute of Astrophysics of the Ca­nary Is­lands for a pe­riod of 75 years, the web­site re­ported this week.

“The TMT team con­tin­ues to work to make La Palma a real al­ter­na­tive when the board of di­rec­tors of the TMT In­ter­na­tional Ob­ser­va­tory makes a de­ci­sion this year re­gard­ing the con­struc­tion site,” ac­cord­ing to a trans­la­tion.

Mauna Kea as­tronomer Thayne Cur­rie said he re­mains skep­ti­cal about whether TMT will choose to aban­don Hawaii. He said he’s heard TMT is be­hind sched­ule in plan­ning for La Palma, and it will be even longer with any le­gal chal­lenge.

Cur­rie, a leader with a group known as Yes2TMT, said stud­ies have shown that La Palma doesn’t com­pare to Mauna Kea for many forms of as­tron­omy.

“A few months or even a year head start for TMT’s con­struc­tion is not worth get­ting sad­dled with a medi­ocre site for the next 50-plus years,” he said. “TMT should let the le­gal process in Hawaii run its course first be­fore mak­ing any de­ci­sions.”

TMT’s time­line could be blown if the Hawaii Supreme Court doesn’t move rel­a­tively quickly. It will cer­tainly take a hit if it de­cides that an­other con­tested case hear­ing is nec­es­sary on the sub­lease is­sue.

In his or­der last year, Hawaii is­land Cir­cuit

Judge Greg Naka­mura said the Land Board vi­o­lated the con­sti­tu­tional rights of plain­tiff E. Kalani Flores of Hilo in deny­ing his re­quest for a con­tested case hear­ing in 2014, prior to al­low­ing the univer­sity to is­sue a 6-acre sub­lease to TMT.

UH’s 1967 lease of more than 11,000 acres at the sum­mit of Mauna Kea re­quires the board’s con­sent to sub­lease.

Flores ap­pealed the board’s de­nial, and Naka­mura ruled that, based upon the Supreme Court’s opin­ion over­turn­ing the TMT con­struc­tion per­mit, the Land Board in­fringed upon Flores’ con­sti­tu­tional right to due process. Naka­mura va­cated the board’s sub­lease.

For the TMT to move for­ward quickly, the Supreme Court would have to re­in­state the sub­lease.

The univer­sity de­clined to com­ment for this story.

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