SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A Georgia county's plan to build a rocket launch pad for sending satellites into space went before voters Tuesday in a referendum forced by opponents who fear the project poses safety and environmental risks that outweigh any economic benefits.
Camden County obtained a license to operate a commercial spaceport on the Georgia coast from the Federal Aviation Administration a few months ago after spending a decade and $10.3 million pursuing the project.
Before county officials could close on their purchase of 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) to build Spaceport Camden, a judge ordered that the land deal be put to a vote by county residents when opponents gathered more than 3,500 petition signatures calling for a special election.
Located on the Georgia-Florida line, Camden County has worked since 2012 toward building and operating the 13th licensed U.S. launch site for private rockets. Supporters say it's a chance for the county of 55,000 to join the commercial space race and also lure supporting industries and tourists.
“Launches at Spaceport Camden would bring thousands of visitors and offer millions of dollars in economic activity to our restaurants, hotels and businesses,” said Jimmy Starline, a spaceport supporter who's a former chairman of the county commission.
Others say the proposed launch site, an industrial plot formerly used to manufacture pesticides and munitions, poses potential environmental and safety hazards.
Critics, including the National Park Service, say rockets exploding soon after launch could rain fiery debris onto Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists each year.
Jim Goodman, a retired healthcare administrator and a city councilman in the Camden County community of St. Marys, said he initially supported the spaceport proposal. He said he changed his mind over time “as more and more facts came to light, when you realized what they intended to do was launch rockets over the heads of people.”
“If it was out over clear ocean and not being built on contaminated land, I wouldn’t be concerned about it,” said Goodman, one of two spaceport opponents named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit that paved the way for the vote.
Steve Howard, Camden County's government administrator, said chances of anyone getting hurt or killed during a launch are no greater than being struck by lightning.
“In every scenario, this can be done and it can be done safely,” Howard said.
Even if the spaceport gets built, there’s no guarantee the project will fire its first rocket anytime soon. Despite increased demand for commercial launches in the past decade, more than half of licensed U.S. spaceports have never held a licensed launch.
The FAA noted in a December letter that another round of safety and environmental evaluations will be needed before anyone could launch rockets from the Camden County site. The agency cautioned that "many more reviews remain, and no outcome is guaranteed.”
More than 2,300 people, nearly 7% of Camden County voters, already cast ballots during the early voting period that ended Friday. Another 100 returned absentee ballots by mail, said Shannon Nettles, the county elections supervisor.
County commissioners unsuccessfully tried to stop the election in court, arguing that Georgia's constitution doesn't allow voters to force a referendum in order to repeal the resolutions of local governments. A judge denied their legal motion last week, when ballots were already being cast.
Camden County's attorney told the judge he planned an appeal to challenge the election's validity.
Commissioners also voted in a special meeting 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 purchase property.
Goodman said he and other project opponents suspect the commissioners may try to use the authority to buy the spaceport property if voters successfully block the county commission from closing the deal.
Howard, the county administrator, declined to comment on whether the spaceport authority might try to purchase the land. He said: "I can’t speculate on what people will do or won’t do.”
A state lawmaker from Camden County, Republican Rep. Steven Sainz, warned commissioners in a Facebook video he would immediately ask the legislature to dissolve the spaceport authority if commissioners sought to use it to thwart the will of voters.
“If there is a referendum vote that signifies that the county commissioners cannot purchase this property, I will not stand aside and see that this piece of legislation created a few years ago be utilized in a way that allows the county to ignore the votes of my constituents,” Sainz said.
By RUSS BYNUM Associated Press