- Associated Press - Saturday, June 14, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources deferred a key decision for a $1.3 billion telescope project, saying the state needs more time to explore legal issues.

Board members voted Friday evening to defer a decision on the sublease for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which scientists want to build on the state’s highest peak.

The sublease is the last major bureaucratic hurdle for scientists hoping to start operations in 2021. The project also faces paperwork and the threat of court action by opponents.

But opponents on Friday questioned whether appraisals were done properly and whether Native Hawaiians had been consulted as required by the National Historic Preservation Act. They also questioned whether it made sense to approve a sublease for a major project on land where the master lease was going to expire in less than 20 years.

Board Chairman William Aila said the panel will revisit approval of the sublease after it gains clarity from the University of Hawaii about the legal questions that were raised. The soonest the board could take up the sublease again would be at its next meeting in two weeks, Aila said.

Organizers plan to build the telescope on the summit of the volcano Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island.

The decision was deferred after board members heard several hours of public testimony, where Native Hawaiians implored the board to preserve a site they consider sacred, and budding scientists to aging PhDs spoke about the incredible opportunities the telescope could bring.

“This mountain is more than vacant land,” said E. Kalani Flores of Kamuela. “Mauna Kea is our sacred people.”

Native Hawaiians in ancient times also were astronomers, and used the stars to navigate on canoe voyages, said Kealoha Pisciotta of Hilo.

“The knowledge they venture with comes from Muana Kea,” Pisciotta said. “Mauna Kea is priceless, and there is no way that any rent will compensate any of us.”

Paul Coleman, an astrophysicist and Native Hawaiian, said having the telescope on Hawaii Island would encourage local students to learn about science.

“Most of our children are being educated to leave,” Coleman said.

The project was initiated by the University of California, California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy. Universities and institutions in China, India and Japan later signed on as partners.

If built, the Thirty Meter Telescope could be the largest optical telescope in the world, sporting a primary mirror that would be nearly 100 feet, or 30 meters, in diameter.

But that title could be usurped by a group of European scientists who are working on the European Extremely Large Telescope. They plan to have a mirror that is 138 feet, or 42 meters, in diameter.

The University of Hawaii leases from the state the land where the telescope would be built.

The Thirty Meter Telescope group would sublease the land from the University of Hawaii starting at $300,000 for the first year, rising gradually to about $1 million a year after a decade.

The University of Hawaii Board of Regents unanimously voted to support the project about four years ago.

Some Native Hawaiians oppose the project because they believe it would defile a summit they consider sacred. Some environmentalists also oppose the telescope because they believe it could harm the rare wekiu bug.

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