The controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project is potentially facing another major hurdle that insiders say could significantly alter its plan.
A Circuit Court judge has ordered yet another contested case hearing before construction on the $1.4 billion telescope can begin, but the state intends to fight that ruling with an appeal in the next few weeks.
State Attorney General Doug Chin confirms he plans to challenge the decision, saying in a statement released to Hawaii News Now, "This judgment may have broad ramifications for future cases before the Land Board. Therefore, while we respect the court's decision, we do plan to appeal it within 30 days, as the law requires."
Mauna Kea is designated by the state as conservation land under the direction of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. The University of Hawaii at Hilo began leasing land from the state back in 1967, but the terms of their agreement requires the university to obtain approval before subleasing it to others -- like the 13 telescopes already on the summit of the mountain.
Back in 2014, Hawaii Island resident E. Kalnai Flores asked the Land Board to hold a contested case hearing regarding TMT's 6-acre sublease proposal with UH Hilo, but his request was denied. Last month, Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura ruled the Flores' constitutional rights were violated when the state failed to hold the hearing prior to allowing UH Hilo to issue the sublease to TMT. Judge Nakamura ordered the state to hold a new contested case hearing -- a decision reiterated with a written order released Friday that vacated the Land Board's consent to the sublease.
Legal experts say Nakamura's order could delay the TMT project by several more months -- even years.
Judge Nakamura's order comes on the heels of the Hawaii Supreme Court's 2015 ruling that state Land Board illegally issued TMT a conservation district use permit prior to holding a contested case hearing. The state Supreme Court ordered a new hearing. Testimony, which began in October in Hilo, is currently underway.
A TMT spokesman has reportedly said it is unclear how the latest court decision will affect the project or its timeline. However, telescope officials have said they hoped the current contested case hearing would conclude with a decision to re-issue them a permit by this spring so that they can begin construction on the summit of Mauna Kea by April 2018.
Another delay could force the TMT Board to consider moving the project to their alternate choice of the Canary Islands.