HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - After more than four months of testimony from over 70 witnesses and thousands of documents to review, a retired Circuit Court judge has made her recommendation that the state Land Board reissue a permit to allow construction of the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project on top of Mauna Kea.
Contested case hearings officer Riki May Amano deliberated for six weeks before concluding the $1.4 billion TMT met all the criteria needed for building in a conservation district — though her 303-page judgment does come with 31 conditions.
Among them: Guidance on how to handle newly-discovered burial and cultural sites, requirements for "substantial rent," and the establishment of a $1 million a year fund for STEM education in the community.
Amano had no deadline for making her recommendation in the case — but her decision comes less than a year from a self-imposed construction deadline by TMT project officials. They have discussed moving the telescope to an alternative site if construction doesn't begin by April of 2018.
The cultural clash over TMT began dominating the headlines in 2015, after a massive protest blocked construction by preventing access to the site on the summit of Mauna Kea, but the debate over the controversial telescope project dates further back than that.
Cultural practitioners who say they stand in protection of the Mauna Kea as a sacred Native Hawaiian site have been protesting the telescope development on the mountain since it first began in the 1960s.
While the state Land Department is in charge of overseeing conservation land, like Mauna Kea, the University of Hawaii at Hilo has been leasing the land for their astronomy program since 1967. Their agreement allows them to sub-lease it to others, like the 13 telescopes already on the summit of the mountain.
The Thirty Meter Telescope organization was started in 2003 as a partnership between Caltech, the University of California, a Canadian astronomy research association and national institutes in Japan, China and India.
In 2005, TMT submitted a proposal for project consideration of their 18-story telescope and in 2010, an environmental impact statement was completed — clearing the way for the state Land Board to approve plans for the project in 2011.
The state Land Board issued a conservation land use permit for construction in April of 2013 and approved the UH sublease for the six-acre TMT site in July of 2014.
On October 7, 2014, a groundbreaking and blessing ceremony was held on Mauna Kea, but it was interrupted by peaceful protest.
Construction was scheduled to begin in April 2015, but it was blocked by opponents, leading to the first of several arrests on the mountain by those who are committed to preventing the project from moving forward.
Another mass protest was staged in June 2015. This time, more than 750 people gathered to stand in protection of the mountain as a sacred Native Hawaiian place and to block construction workers from reaching the TMT site.
A temporary standdown on TMT construction was immediately ordered — a cooling off period of sorts — but in November 2015, telescope officials announced they would return for construction. Before their crews could arrive on the mountain, the state Supreme Court imposed an injunction, preventing any work from resuming until they could review challenges to the validity of project's permit.
Then, in December 2015, the state Supreme Court revoked TMT's permit after ruling the agency "put the cart before the horse" by issuing a conservation land use permit prior to hearing objections from other parties.
In March 2016, TMT leaders announced publicly that they had started considering other sites -- including the Canary Islands.
Then in October, a re-do of the permit application process began with the start of a second contested case hearing during which 71 people testified over a nearly five month period. The hearing concluded in March and the more than two dozen parties involved had until the end of May to submit written summaries of their arguments.
On Wednesday, after six weeks of deliberations, Amano issued her decision.
Amano's decision is just a recommendation. It is now up to the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to make an ultimate decision. DLNR officials say their first step will be to schedule a hearing for additional community feedback before voting, but at this time it's unclear when that will take place.
State Attorney General Doug Chin says the Land Board can choose to approve the recommendation, reject the recommendation, or make amendments of their own to the recommendation.
It is widely believed that regardless of what the Land Board rules, it will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
If that's the case, Chin says the appeal will go directly to the state Supreme Court for consideration, bypassing a lower court review as a result of new legislation.
Chin says if the permit is approved, construction can begin immediately, even if an appeal is filed with the state Supreme Court (unless opponents are awarded an emergency injunction to prevent it).
And TMT is potentially facing another major hurdle that insiders say could significantly alter its plan.
In January 2016, a Circuit Court judge ordered yet another contested case hearing before construction on the telescope can begin, but the state has since appealed the ruling. The dispute has to do with whether a contested case hearing should have granted before a sublease was issued to TMT.
A TMT spokesman has reportedly said it is unclear how these decisions will affect the project or its timeline.
However, telescope officials have said they hope to 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.