TMT not quite done yet


While Friday’s approval by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources marked a milestone in the effort to build the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, many additional hurdles must be cleared before the $1.3 billion facility can become a reality.

First and foremost, said Hawaii Community Affairs Manager Sandra Dawson, the TMT Observatory Corp. must undergo negotiations with the University of Hawaii to arrive at a sublease agreement for the property that could one day house the world’s largest optical telescope.

“Three years ago, the Legislature passed a law requiring that any lease for Mauna Kea would have to pay substantial rent and be negotiated in a public process,” Dawson said. “Because we hadn’t yet had a permit, nobody has explored that. Now that we have it (the permit), we can begin that process.”

Neither Dawson nor Stephanie Nagata — director of UH-Hilo’s Office of Mauna Kea Management — could say what the terms of any lease agreement will look like because negotiations have not yet begun.

But if the university’s recent lease agreements with other organizations operating telescopes at the summit are any indication, the lease agreement would likely include a nominal amount of money changing hands.

In an annual report to the state Legislature dated November 2009, UH said it had 11 subleases with organizations operating astronomical observatories on the mountain, with each lessee paying the university a fee of $1 a year, in addition to giving the Institute for Astronomy a percentage of viewing time on their respective telescopes.

“Viewing time provides invaluable advantages for advancing the university’s elite position among astronomical research organizations and the State of Hawaii’s globally recognized astronomy industry,” the report said.

Each of the existing subleases would terminate at the same time that the university’s 65-year general lease for Mauna Kea from the BLNR is scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2033.

Whatever lease arrangement is arrived at, Nagata said it will have to be voted upon by the UH Board of Regents.

In 2005, UH accepted the transfer of authority from the Board of Land and Natural Resources for the administration of commercial tour permits on the mountain. The university currently allows a maximum of nine commercial tour permits, with each tour operator paying a fee of $6 per tour passenger. Those fees are paid into the same Mauna Kea Lands Management Special Fund, with 20 percent being set aside for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

During fiscal year 2012, $407,468 in fees was collected from commercial tour operators and deposited into the lands special fund, according to the most recent annual report presented to the state Legislature in November.

“Of that, $258,350 was used to help defray the cost to operate the Mauna Kea ranger program and Visitor Information Station, and to maintain the road and facility infrastructure,” the report reads. “An amount of $81,494 was set aside for payment to OHA. The cumulative set aside for OHA is $388,416.

“Approximately $167,000 has been set aside for the purchase and installation of a system to monitor vehicle traffic; purchase and installation and an LED road condition sign; and renovation of facilities including additional restrooms. In addition, funds will be needed to install guardrails along strategic portions of the summit access road.”