Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources has approved a sublease for a $1.3 billion telescope that would be one of the world's largest, but the approval is on hold until the board hears objections in a separate review process.
The board met Friday to discuss issues raised previously about a plan to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on the summit of the Mauna Kea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island.
The University of Hawaii currently leases land from the state where the telescope would be built, and the Thirty Meter Telescope group would sublease the land for about $1 million after it is fully built.
The sublease is the last major bureaucratic hurdle for scientists, although the project also faces the threat of lawsuits by opponents.
Opponents raised questions about whether appraisals of the land were done appropriately and whether Native Hawaiians were properly consulted. They said that if the telescope is built on Hawaii's tallest peak, it will desecrate a place held sacred by Native Hawaiians.
"Mauna Kea is very sacred to me, to my culture, to my future culture, to my future generations," said Pono Kealoha, who describes himself as a Hawaiian national.
Representatives from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which would get a percentage of the rent payments, questioned how the rental amount to be charged for the telescope was calculated.
"Based on our research, we know some of the telescopes on the mountain are selling viewing time for between $80,000 and $100,000 per night," said Sterling Wong, public policy manager for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Determining the correct market value for renting space to the telescope company was incredibly difficult, because there was no actual market to use for comparison, said James Hallstrom, an appraiser with the University of Hawaii. Appraisers examined rents at resorts on the Big Island and telescope sites in Chile, he said.
"We have an asset here that is very unique," Hallstrom said.
Board Chairman William Aila said the objections were heard, but the University of Hawaii provided what the board thought were legally appropriate answers.
Several opponents requested what's known as a "contested case hearing." They each now have 10 days to submit their objections in writing, and after that paperwork is filed, their objections will be reviewed in a judicial process, Aila said.
The sublease will not be in effect until each of the contested cases reach conclusion, a process which could take as little as a month or as much as a year, he said.