Thursday, June 18, 2009

The TMT, the Woodland Center, and Public Frustration

It's been a busy week. I'd just completed a story about the Puna Woodland Shopping Center controversy for the Honolulu Weekly, when I got the go ahead from the Big Island Weekly to cover Protect Pahoa's protest near the shopping center site on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, I went to a briefing for bloggers and a public hearing, both on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope. Now I'm working on a Sunday, trying to wrap up stories on those events.

Stories about the Woodland Center controversy are out in the Honolulu Weekly and upcoming in the Big Island Weekly. I'm working on a piece about the telescope for the Hawaii Independent.

One thing that impressed me about both issues is how many well-intentioned people, no matter which side of the issue they stand on, simply don't understand how the system works or how to intervene effectively.

Take the Woodland Center controversy. The permits to build Woodland Center were issued years ago. The contracts have already been signed; the bulldozers are already in motion. About all that the protesters can hope to accomplish, at this point, is "raising consciousness" for other small towns. The only hope that the public ever had of stopping that center or shaping it, really, was back before the zoning approvals and grubbing permits were issued.

Nor was either side very likely to sway the question of whether or not the Thirty Meter Telescope was going to come to this island, based on their testimony at the hearings on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Both sides seemed to be offering statements beginning with "I support the TMT" or "I oppose the TMT." But that just isn't what an EIS hearing is for. In the 20 years that I've been attending EIS hearings on the island, I've never seen an EIS rule in favor of the "No action" option--the option that would kill the project. EISs are paid for by the developer. Their purpose is not to stop a project or to give it the green light; they're meant to examine impacts and propose methods of mitigation--in other words to make the project better, not to kill it. The only time I've ever seen public input stop a project on this island, it was through lawsuits, administrative hearings, or public hearings held by lawmakers.

Still, EIS hearings are a popular method of venting about a project and a way to allow lawmakers and reporters to get some sense of the public's sentiment. That's probably why the holders of EIS hearings have been actively seeking ways to make the hearings less of a bully pulpit in recent years. First the armed forces started holding their hearings in "open house" format, inviting the public to look at informational booths but accepting testimony only in written form or in a private session with a court reporter. That backfired at one hearing, where angry protesters brought their own microphone and cameras, held a noisy demonstration at the hearing with plenty of speakers, and then gave the army a tape afterward as "testimony." The TMT people tried a new variant on that strategy. There were the informational booths first, then presentations by telescope officials, then an open mike--but those who spoke at the open mike were told that their testimony would not go into the record unless they also submitted it in writing or dictated it to a court reporter. A lot of people got up and spoke anyway--and only a couple bothered with the court reporter. So they got their rants in without the TMT people having to dignify those rants with a response in the final document.

In short, the system really is rigged toward the developer, and sign-wavings and EIS hearings aren't likely to change that fact. If people really want to be effective in shaping this island's future, they need haunt the Planning Department and the newspaper's public notice sections so that they know when a new development is proposed; then they need to hit the meetings of the Planning Commission, the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the Land Use Commission, the County Council and other deliberative bodies that actually make land use decisions. And they need to give generously to the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund so that when a court battle needs to occur, the ammunition is available to win it.