Legislators debate jurisdiction over telescope road

  • Kupuna talk about their opposition to TMT with Lt. Gov. Josh Green in July on Maunakea Access Road. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • Many upside-down Hawaii state flags wave in the wind in July on Maunakea Access Road. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

  • State Sen. Kai Kahele announces his bid for Congress at Mooheau Bandstand in Hilo in January. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald)

HONOLULU — Hawaii state officials are debating jurisdiction over the road leading to a contested telescope project, a report said.

State Sen. Kai Kahele questioned the state’s legal jurisdiction over Maunakea Access Road during a legislative briefing Wednesday, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Thursday.

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The dispute over the state Department of Transportation’s jurisdiction could develop into a larger legal issue for the Thirty Meter Telescope and other Maunakea telescopes.

The plan to start construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Big Island has been thwarted for weeks by Native Hawaiian activists who say the construction will further desecrate a mountain some consider sacred and already has more than a dozen observatories.

Police arrested about three dozen people blocking the road July 17. The number of demonstrators has grown to a few thousand on weekends.

The transportation department built the Maunakea Access Road over Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property without permission about 50 years ago. The state never executed a land transfer as part of a $600 million agreement in 1995 to compensate for the misuse of Hawaiian home lands, said Home Lands Director William Aila.

The transportation department maintains operational control over the road despite the lack of compensation 24 years later, the state attorney general’s office said.

Democratic Gov. David Ige’s administration is working to ensure the land swap is completed, Aila said.

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Without the land exchange, the state breached the agreement and cannot claim title to the access road or stop protests there, Kahele said.

“That road belongs to the beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act,” Kahele said.

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