Opponents of a 14-story solar telescope planned for Haleakala are taking their case to court after a state board said last week that it was OK for the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Astronomy to begin work on the project.

The Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, which represents Kilakila o Haleakala, says that the go-ahead for the project should have never been granted because a key permit is being challenged. The Board of Land and Natural Resources has yet to rule on that challenge but the university is moving ahead with construction anyway.

David Kimo Frankel, the group’s attorney, told Civil Beat that it’s a violation of the law to start construction before the hearing on the permit is over.

Deborah Ward, a spokeswoman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said it’s not against the law to begin work on the project, and noted that the Land Board had only approved partial work on the observatory, not its full construction.

In addition to creating jobs on Maui, the Institute of Astronomy says the world-class telescope will allow astrophysicists to study solar wind and solar flares and their impact on Earth’s climate. The telescope, the largest of its kind, is slated to be built on an 18-acre site known as “Science City,” which includes about a half dozen other observatories.

Frankel has filed a motion in Circuit Court for a preliminary injunction that would prevent construction from proceeding. A June hearing date has been set, but Frankel hopes to expedite that because the institute plans to begin construction May 14.

Michael Maberry, the institute’s assistant director, sent a letter to DLNR earlier this month informing it that the university intended to begin mitigation work, including removing debris and burying utility lines.

Maberry told Civil Beat at the time that the conditions of the conservation district use permit allowed for project construction to begin any time after December 2010, the date that the permit was issued. Frankel called the argument “ridiculous.”

According to the Land Board’s decision last week, the institute must inform all parties in the case if it plans to proceed beyond the mitigation work and that the board can impose further conditions on the permit.

The newest developments in the case come after the Land Board last month dismissed Stephen Jacobson, the hearing officer in the case. Jacobson, a private attorney who had just finished a year-long review of the case, recommended to the board that the permit be upheld and concluded that Kilakila o Haleakala had no authority to intervene in the matter.

But the Land Board threw out his recommendations, dismissed him from the case and ordered that a new hearing officer be hired. Jacobson alleged that he had received pressure from outside parties, including Sen. Daniel Inouye’s office, while he was reviewing the case. The board decided that the process should be started over to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

The senator’s office declined to comment on the matter beyond a statement it issued earlier this month saying that it supported robust debate over a project of this magnitude. But, Inouye’s staff said, there should be a reasonable timeframe for discussions to be concluded and that they hoped construction of the telescope would begin soon.

Further delays in the project could jeopardize $146 million in federal stimulus funds that the project has been granted and that must be used by September 2015. The total cost of the project is about $300 million.

Kilakila o Haleakala has argued that the solar telescope would desecrate Haleakala’s cultural resources and disturb traditional Native Hawaiian practices in a location that is viewed as sacred.

The project’s environmental impact statement acknowledges that the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope “would be seen as culturally insensitive and disturb traditional cultural practices,” and that it would cause “major, adverse, short- and long-term, direct impacts on the traditional cultural resources” that couldn’t be mitigated.

The construction of the observatory will require workers to burrow 30 feet down into volcanic rock. The project is expected to take five to seven years to complete.

In one of several video’s posted on Kilakila o Haleakala’s web site, local Maui residents talk about why they oppose the project.

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