The state Board of Land and Natural Resources has reaffirmed its approval of a key permit for a controversial solar telescope to be built atop Haleakala, essentially giving the University of Hawaii the green light to proceed with the $300 million project.
On Friday, the board ruled in a contested case hearing dating back to December 2010, when the body approved a conservation district use permit for the project. That decision was challenged by Kilakila O Haleakala, which objected to the project's impacts to cultural and environmental resources.
The board said in its decision that the proposed Advanced Technology Solar Telescope - a joint project of the University of Hawaii and the National Science Foundation - is consistent with uses allowed in the state's conservation district.
"The proposed land use, when considered together with all minimization and mitigation commitments . . . will not cause substantial adverse impact to existing resources within the surrounding area, community or region," the board said in its 96-page findings of fact, conclusions of law, decision and order in the contested case. "The project is designed to protect public health, safety and welfare by providing scientific data that will assist in learning more about the sun's effects on our atmosphere and environment."
Attorneys with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., which represents Kilakila O Haleakala, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Kiope Raymond, Kilakila O Haleakala's president and an associate professor of Hawaiian studies at the Telescope University of Hawaii Maui College, said that he wasn't aware of the decision when reached Tuesday. He referred comment to the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.
The telescope facility, which will stretch 14-stories high, is to be built in the 18-acre Haleakala High Altitude Observatories site, otherwise known as Science City.
It's unclear when construction could start, but University of Hawaii System President M.R.C. Greenwood said in a statement that UH "is eager to move this $300-million project forward. The Advanced Technology Solar Telescope is important both to the scientific community and to Hawaii's economy."
The land board's order said the main adverse impacts of the project are those to cultural resources, endangered flora and fauna and to view planes, but it noted that "specific measures have been proposed to mitigate these impacts."
"When considered with the minimization and mitigation measure commitments, the effect of the (solar telescope) project on the resources will be either minimal, temporary or both, with the exception of effects to visual resources and cultural practices," the order said.
One of 20 conditions attached to the order stipulates that within two years of the facility being completed, Kilakila O Haleakala may require a third ahu (altar or shrine) be built at Science City "to provide an additional location for practitioners to conduct cultural practices."
(In recognition of the cultural importance of Haleakala, Native Hawaiian stonemasons erected a west- and east-facing ahu for ceremonial use in 2005 and 2006 within the Haleakala High Altitude Observatories.)
That condition was to help address the fact that the telescope facility will be approximately 90 feet from the east-facing ahu. The land board noted that during construction, the project would create intermittent sound impacts to the ceremonial area, and that during operation, the project "could increase the amount of ambient noise that is perceived at the ahu."
The board said the adverse impacts to view planes will be mitigated through the selected site location within Science City and "the periodic evaluation of exterior paint options that could make the ATST less noticeable."
It went on to say that the telescope project "will be larger than the facilities currently located in the (observatories) site . . . However, it will be just one of 11 such facilities. . . . From a distance, the (project) will be indistinguishable from the other facilities."
Another condition requires the University of Hawaii to follow through with establishing a Native Hawaiian working group, retaining a cultural specialist and reserving up to 2 percent of the facility's total usage time for Native Hawaiian scientists, when there are Native Hawaiians among the pool of qualified scientists.
The university also will be required to provide written annual reports to the land board on its status of implementing mitigation commitments and other promises.
The board's decision echoes recommendations by two hearings officers appointed in the case.
However, the original hearings officer was ultimately dismissed earlier this year, and his report tossed out, because of inappropriate communications between university officials and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye's office regarding the project's status.
A second officer resigned amid conflict of interest concerns because she represents Greenwood as her personal attorney. A third hearings officer issued his report in July, recommending that UH be able to keep the conservation district permit.
Kilakila O Haleakala has challenged the project in court. The Hawaii Supreme Court on Tuesday said it will take up the organization's request filed in September to review an earlier decision issued by the Intermediate Court of Appeals. The case will be scheduled for oral argument before the high court.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.