Classification of state land on Maunakea summit challenged

  • Courtesy photo

HILO — The state Land Use Commission will hold a public hearing Thursday about a petition by two Hawaiian cultural practitioners concerning the classification of state land on the Maunakea summit.

The petition, filed by Hilo residents Ku‘ulei Kanahele and Ahiena Kanahele in September, challenges the use of the land at the summit — which is regulated by the Department of Land and Natural Resources, managed by the University of Hawaii, and currently home to 12 different observatories — and posits that the land’s use is more consistent with land classified as “urban,” rather than land within a conservation district.

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The argument of the petition revolves around the fact that there were no formal proceedings to change the boundary classification for the summit land that would allow the Maunakea observatories, which the petition claims are equivalent to industrial facilities, on conservation land.

Had those proceedings taken place, the Kanaheles would have had an opportunity to formally oppose them. Because they did not, the Kanaheles allege they were deprived of their right to protect their Native Hawaiian cultural practices on that land.

Consequently, they claim any additional permits for industrial facilities on the summit unlawfully circumvent Hawaii’s land use boundary amendment laws.

The 12 observatories atop the mountain, along with the yet-to-be-built Thirty Meter Telescope, were all permitted to be constructed under various conservation district use permits since 1968. Several of those permits have coincided with UH subleasing portions of the land to operators of the observatories.

The petition goes on to state that, while the state Board of Land and Natural Resources has the authority to regulate land uses in conservation districts, only the Land Use Commission can reclassify land from one zone to another. Therefore, the petition seeks the commission’s determination whether the current use of the summit land is appropriate for its current classification.

Ku‘ulei and Ahiena Kanahele are respectively the daughter-in-law and son of one of the kupuna who was arrested while obstructing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope in July. Ku‘ulei, herself a University of Hawaii PhD candidate, also testified as a witness during the 2017 contested case hearing.

Since the petition was filed in September, the DLNR, UH and the Thirty Meter Telescope have requested the Land Use Commission deny the petition without a hearing.

A letter from a TMT representative to the commission argues that the petitioners are not able to seek a district boundary amendment because they do not have sufficient property interest — only the land owner or the lessee, in this case the BLNR or UH, can do so.

The TMT letter also argues that the lengthy contested case hearing exhaustively conclusively resolved the summit’s boundary issues.

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“The commission should view and treat the petition for what is it — an improper collateral attack on the TMT (conservation district use permit), which was carefully considered and granted by BLNR,” the letter concluded.

Letters from DLNR, UH and TMT posit that the commission has no obligation to hold a hearing, nor have the petitioners requested a hearing. Nevertheless, the hearing is scheduled to begin Thursday at the Crown Room of the Grand Naniloa Resort in Hilo, with provisions to potentially carry on through Friday and Monday.

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