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UH regents approve lease for Thirty Meter Telescope

By Nanea Kalani

LAST UPDATED: 4:41 p.m. HST, Feb 20, 2014

The University of Hawaii Board of Regents voted 13-1 Thursday to approve a lease agreement for the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope project, clearing the way for the world's largest telescope to begin construction as planned in April atop Mauna Kea.

The decision came amid strong opposition from Native Hawaiian students and faculty of UH-Manoa, who testified Thursday against the project, describing the Hawaii island volcano as a sacred cultural site.

The board deliberated in executive session before discussing and voting on the agreement during the public portion of its monthly meeting. Student regent Jeffrey Acido was the only no vote and Maui regent Eugene Bal was not in attendance.

"I think we did something good for Hawaii. Mauna Kea is this huge, huge part of Hawaii and who we are as a people, and what we've done is allow it to be used for a very good purpose," regents Chairman John Holzman said after the meeting.

The sublease agreement provides about nine acres on the northern plateau below the summit on land UH leases from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

The Land Board in April 2013 approved putting the project on Mauna Kea, but imposed two dozen conditions, including payment of a "substantial amount" of rent to be used solely for the management and stewardship of the mountain.

Construction is expected to start in April and be completed in 2022. Under the lease terms, the university will charge $1.08 million a year once the telescope is in operation. Rent will average $500,000 a year during the 10-year construction phase.

The lease would run through 2033, when UH's master lease for Mauna Kea lands expires, but the agreement would automatically extend the project's sublease to 65 years from the effective date if and when the state land board approves UH's pending request to enter into new 65-year leases.

The $1.3 billion project — a collaboration between California and Canadian universities and international scientists — is expected to create an estimated 300 temporary construction jobs and up to 140 permanent jobs.

The project's website says the cutting-edge telescope will be three times larger than the most powerful optical telescopes in use now, and allow astronomers to explore forming galaxies "at the very edge of the observable universe, near the beginning of time."

The regents agreed to the project in 2010. UH said executing the sublease would be the last step needed to allow construction to begin.

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