I’ve written about a fair number of battles against new development, from cantilevered mountain cabins to the affordable housing development that “Stars Wars” built. None, however, are as huge — literally and figuratively — as a currently stalled construction project on the Big Island of Hawaii that’s pitted conservation-minded local activists against the stargazing scientific community.

I’m talking, of course, about the fight over the majestic Mauna Kea.

The battle over the construction of the $1.4 billion astronomical observatory that would house the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) isn’t a cut-and-dried NIMBY skirmish as this extremely large telescope (ELT) isn’t exactly being built in anyone’s backyard. And the TMT certainly isn't blocking any views ... or the views of any earthly beings, at least.

It is, however, being built on a dormant volcano that’s both ecologically sensitive and culturally sacred. The highest peak on the Hawaiian islands and one of the finest places on Earth to gaze directly up into the heavens, Mauna Kea is already home to an array of large astronomical instruments including13 telescopes, including the mighty twin telescopes (infrared and optical) of the W.M. Keck Observatory.

Although large astronomical installations have existed on the summit of Mauna Kea for decades, opposition to the TMT is focused on its considerable size: rising over 18 stories atop Mauna Kea, it would be — until other planned ELTs across the globe unseat it — the largest telescope in the world. The TMT project, lead by an international consortium headed by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology with an eye towards of environmental sustainability, is three times the size of the already massive (10 meter) telescopes at Keck Observatory.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii All of the volcanic peaks on Hawaii are considered sacred but none quite as sacred as Mauna Kea. (Photo: Occupy Hilo/flickr)

For opponents, enough is enough. Despite the myriad benefits to both the local economy and the international scientific community alongside promises to decommission and demolish a small handful of existing telescopes on Mauna Kea to make way for the big new arrival, many anti-telescope activists stand firm in the belief that erecting such a structure would be an act of desecration.

This week, opponents of TMT claimed a major victory when the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the construction permit issued to build the observatory is, well, no good. The project itself has been stalled since April when protesters blocked access to the build site as construction commenced, leading to a lawsuit against the telescope filed by activist groups and the just-announced decision by the Supreme Court.

The court found that the invalidity of the permit dates back to 2011 when the Board of Land and Natural Resources issued it before allowing opponents to participate in a contested case hearing. Per the ruling: “Quite simply, the Board put the cart before the horse when it issued the permit before the request for a contested case hearing was resolved and the hearing was held."

The now-revoked permit was issued not to the consortium itself but to the University of Hawaii, which is leasing the land near the summit of Mauna Kea to the TMT. The annual rent for the 5-acre parcel is $1 million.

Mauna Kea observatories, HawaiiThe highest peak in Hawaii, Mauna Kea is already home to a number of active astronomical observatories. (Photo: Cucombre Libre/flickr)

Writes Associate Justice Richard Pollack in his concurring opinion:

The Board of Land and Natural Resources (Board) issued the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo (UH) a permit to construct a 180-foot high astronomical observatory within a conservation district on Mauna Kea over the objections of Native Hawaiians and others, who sought a contested case hearing to fully assess the effects of the project prior to making a decision of whether to issue the permit. Instead, the Board approved the permit but included a condition that, if a contested case proceeding was initiated, then construction could not commence until the Board conducted such a hearing. The Board’s procedure of holding a contested case hearing after the permit has already been issued does not comply with our case law...nor with due process under the Hawaiʻi Constitution.

With the current construction permit rendered void by the court, the telescope project has to basically start from scratch and reapply with the Board — a process that will no doubt be drawn-out, costly and rife with further litigation.

Still, the consortium and local supporters of the project remain optimistic that, some day down the line, on-site work will once again commence. (Off-site assembly work on the telescope is reportedly moving ahead as planned). When/if completed, the new, state-of-the-art observatory will allow researchers to "study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time."

Says Harry Yang, chair of the TMT International Observatory Board of Directors, in a brief statement issued following the ruling:

We thank the Hawaii Supreme Court for the timely ruling and we respect their decision. TMT will follow the process set forth by the state, as we always have. We are assessing our next steps on the way forward. We appreciate and thank the people of Hawaii and our supporters from these last eight-plus years.

Opponents see this delay in permitting as something much bigger. Activist and hula instructor Paul Neves tells the New York Times: “In Hawaii, a delay is often a victory.”

Via [Popular Science], [NYT]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.