By RUSS BYNUM, Associated Press
SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia county’s plan to build a rocket launch pad to send satellites into space was voted down by voters Tuesday in a referendum forced by opponents who feared that the project poses safety and environmental risks that outweigh the economic benefits.
With all constituencies reporting in coastal Camden County, unofficial returns showed a significant majority vote to deny county officials authority to purchase 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) for the spaceport project.
Camden County officials who have spent a decade and $10.3 million suing the spaceport seemed determined to fight it out in court. They asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to bar certification of the vote because the county is making a legal argument that the election should be declared invalid.
“Right now they are guilty of ignoring the will of the voters,” said James Goodman, spaceport critic and alderman for the Camden County community in St. Marys. He added: “What they will do if they persist is show complete disregard for the voters.”
County officials had no immediate comment on the outcome, said John Simpson, spokesman for the spaceport project.
The county obtained a license to operate Spaceport Camden on the Georgian coast from the Federal Aviation Administration a few months ago. Before county officials could complete their purchase of the property, a judge ordered the land deal put to a vote. Opponents had collected more than 3,500 petition signatures calling for special elections.
Located on the Georgia-Florida line, Camden County has been building and operating the 13th licensed U.S. private rocket launch site since 2012. Proponents say it’s a chance for the county of 55,000 to join the race for commercial space and also attract supporting industries and tourists.
“Launches at Spaceport Camden would attract thousands of visitors and provide millions of dollars in economic activity for our restaurants, hotels and businesses,” said Jimmy Starline, a spaceport supporter who is a former county commission chairman.
Others say the proposed launch site, industrial land once used to make pesticides and munitions, poses potential environmental and safety risks.
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.
Megan Desrosiers, executive director of coastal Georgia conservation group One Hundred Miles, said Tuesday’s vote “sent a clear message to Camden County officials.”
“Stop spending money on the Spaceport Camden mess,” said Desrosiers, who helped organize the petition to put the project on the ballot. “It’s time to move on and find a real solution that will provide jobs for the people of Camden County and not pose a threat of destruction to the Georgian coast.”
Steve Howard, the Camden County government administrator, said before the vote that the chances of anyone being injured or killed during a launch are no greater than being struck by lightning.
“In all scenarios, it can be done and it can be done safely,” Howard said.
Even if the spaceport is built, there’s no guarantee the project will fire its first rocket anytime soon. Despite increased demand for commercial launches over the past decade, more than half of U.S. licensed spaceports have never held a licensed launch.
The FAA noted in a December letter that another round of safety and environmental assessments will be required before anyone can launch rockets from the Camden County site. The agency warned that “many more critics remain and no results are guaranteed.”
As voters voted on Tuesday, county commissioners asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to temporarily suspend election certification. The commissioners argued unsuccessfully in a lower court that Georgia’s constitution does not give voters the power to veto the spaceport project by referendum.
The Court of Appeals forwarded the legal motion to the Georgia Supreme Court, calling the county’s request an “extraordinary remedy.”
Commissioners also voted at a special meeting on Friday to appoint its first members to a Camden County Spaceport Authority approved by Georgia lawmakers in 2019. The state law authorizing the Spaceport Authority gives it the power to buy goods.
Opponents suspect the commissioners are trying to use the power to buy the spaceport property if voters are successful in preventing the county commission from closing the deal.
Howard, the county administrator, declined to comment on the motive. He said: “I can’t speculate what people will or won’t do.”
A Camden County state legislator, Republican Representative Steven Sainz, warned the commissioners in a video on Facebook that he would immediately ask the legislature to dissolve the spaceport authority if the commissioners seek to use it. to thwart the will of the voters.
“If there is a referendum vote that means the county commissioners cannot buy this property, I will not stand aside and will ensure that this piece of legislation created a few years ago is used in a way to allow the county to ignore the votes of my constituents,” Sainz said.
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