Hearings are still underway for a permit to build what would be one of the world’s largest telescopes on Mauna Kea, but a group challenging the project is already appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Thirty Meter Telescope opponents are challenging various decisions that have been made regarding contested-case proceedings, including affirming the hearings officer and an order limiting each party’s questioning of a witness to 30 minutes.
In 2011, telescope opponents requested contested-case hearings before the state Land Board approved a permit to build on conservation land. The hearings were held, and the permit was upheld.
Opponents then sued. In December 2015, the state Supreme Court revoked the permit, ruling that the Land Board’s approval process was flawed. That meant the application process needed to be redone, requiring a new hearing.
Honolulu attorney Richard Wurdeman filed the appeal Monday for members of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou and KAHEA: The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance. He’s the same attorney who withdrew from representing the group in the hearings, citing scheduling conflicts.
“We believe that the multiple issues being raised on appeal are very compelling and we are hopeful that the Hawaii Supreme Court will decide these issues at this time,” Wurdeman said in an email Wednesday.
Wurdeman filed the appeal directly to the Supreme Court because of a law that took effect in August that allows certain contested-case hearing decisions to bypass the Intermediate Court of Appeals.
State Rep. Scott Saiki, who introduced the measure, said previously that the telescope project was one of the cases that inspired the bill. The law aims to streamline the appeals process and to allow for decisions to be made more quickly, he said.
“We believe there’s no merit to this appeal,” said Dan Meisenzahl, spokesman for the University of Hawaii, which is applying for the permit. “We look forward to completing a fair and impartial hearing process.”
The hearings started last month and continue next week.
The Land Board affirmed retired Hawaii island Judge Riki May Amano over objections from telescope opponents who wanted her replaced.
Mauna Kea Anaina Hou argued that there was an appearance of impropriety because Amano rode in a vehicle with an employee of the Office of Mauna Kea Management during a visit of the project’s site. But the Land Board found that Amano rode with a state law enforcement officer and that there was no evidence of an appearance of impropriety.
The hearings have been moving slowly and Amano recently restricted cross-examination of witnesses to 30 minutes per party. There are about two dozen people participating in the quasi-judicial proceedings who are allowed to cross-examine witnesses.
“We’re not trained lawyers and sometimes it’s difficult to figure out the way in which to ask questions,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the group’s leaders.
Telescope officials have said they want a permit in place by the end of the year or early next year to resume construction in 2018. They recently announced that a mountain in the Canary Islands, Spain, is the primary alternative in case the telescope can’t be built in Hawaii.
“We continue to support (the Land Board’s) commitment in carrying out a fair, transparent and expedient process,” said Thirty Meter Telescope spokesman Scott Ishikawa. “We remain hopeful that a permit can be issued in a timely manner to allow TMT construction in April 2018.”