County advances rocket plans
SAVANNAH, Georgia — Officials in a Georgia county are moving forward with plans to build a launch pad for commercial rockets just a month after residents voted to halt the project by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.
Coastal Camden County commissioners confirmed in a statement Thursday that they had voted earlier in the week to “approve the purchase of … the property where the spaceport would be located.”
The decision follows a March 8 referendum in which 72% of voters sought to halt the project by overturning the commissioners’ prior vote to buy land for the Spaceport Camden project.
Camden County officials have spent the past decade and more than $10 million searching for a commercial spaceport to launch satellites into orbit. Commissioners say the project would bring economic growth not only through rocket launches, but also by attracting related industries and tourists to the community of 55,000 people on the Georgia-Florida line.
Opponents say plans to build the spaceport on industrial land once used to make pesticides and munitions pose potential environmental and safety risks that outweigh the economic benefits. They forced the referendum by collecting more than 3,500 petition signatures from registered voters to put the project on the ballot.
Critics, including the National Park Service, say the rocket blast soon after launch could rain flaming debris down on Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness area visited by approximately 60,000 tourists each year.
A big loss at the polls didn’t stop county officials. Commissioners called a meeting on Tuesday and voted unanimously to let Union Carbide Co., owner of the 4,000-acre industrial site on which the county hopes to build the spaceport, know they plan to move forward. with the purchase of the land.
“It’s a continuation of arrogance and ignorance and it just doesn’t represent the will of the people,” spaceport critic John Goodman, elected councilor for the city of St. Marys, said in a statement. Camden County. He said the commissioners were challenging “a very clear indication from citizens not to be in the business of spaceports”.
Goodman was one of the spaceport opponents who filed a lawsuit earlier this year to stop the county from buying the land before the referendum was held. He said they would likely go back to court to ask a judge again to stop the purchase.
The referendum disrupted the spaceport project at a critical time. After years of study and review, the Federal Aviation Administration granted Camden County a license in December to build and operate the spaceport, which would join 12 others already in operation in the United States.
But before the commissioners could conclude the purchase of the property, a judge ordered that the land agreement be submitted to voters.
The commissioners said in their statement Thursday that they expect the Georgia Supreme Court to declare the referendum invalid. The county has an appeal pending in court that argues the state constitution does not allow voters to veto government projects such as the spaceport. No date has been set to hear the case.
Commissioners have previously dismissed the referendum, in which 17% of registered voters voted, as reflecting the will of a “naked minority”. Steve Howard, the county’s government administrator, recently said the county is looking for private investors to help fund the spaceport. Then came the vote on Tuesday to go ahead with the purchase of the land.
“The board has determined that moving forward in this manner is in the best interests of the county to protect the launch site operator license that was recently issued and the millions of dollars the county has invested so far. ‘now in the spaceport,’ the commissioners said. statement said.
Whether the landowner agrees to sell to Camden County remains to be seen with court cases over the spaceport still pending. Union Carbide said in a statement Thursday that it is evaluating the company’s option agreement with Camden County “in light of ongoing litigation in the county.”