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Voters reject spaceport plan long pursued by Georgia county

This artist's sketch provided by Spaceport Camden shows the launch pad complex of the proposed Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Ga. A special election on Tuesday, March 8, 2022 gives voters a chance to block county commissioners from purchasing 4,000 acres of land for the project.
Spaceport Camden
/
via AP
This artist's sketch provided by Spaceport Camden shows the launch pad complex of the proposed Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Ga. A special election on Tuesday, March 8, 2022 gives voters a chance to block county commissioners from purchasing 4,000 acres of land for the project.

Updated March 8, 2022 at 11:37 PM ET

SAVANNAH, Ga. — A Georgia county's plan to build a rocket launch pad for sending satellites into space got rejected by voters on Tuesday in a referendum forced by opponents who feared the project poses safety and environmental risks that outweigh any economic benefits.

With all precincts reporting in coastal Camden County, unofficial returns showed a sizable majority voting to deny county officials the authority to buy 4,000 acres for the spaceport project.

Camden County officials who spent a decade and $10.3 million pursuing the spaceport seemed determined to fight on in court. They asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to prohibit certification of the vote as the county presses 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, a spaceport critic and a city councilman in the Camden County community of St. Marys. He added: "What they will do if they persist is to demonstrate utter contempt for the voters."

County officials had no immediate comment on the outcome, said John Simpson, a spokesman for the spaceport project.

The county obtained a license to operate Spaceport Camden on the Georgia coast from the Federal Aviation Administration a few months ago. Before county officials could close on their purchase of the property, a judge ordered that the land deal be put to a vote. Opponents had 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.

Megan Desrosiers, executive director of the coastal Georgia conservation group One Hundred Miles, said the vote Tuesday "sent a clear message to Camden County officials."

"Stop spending money on the Spaceport Camden boondoggle," said Desrosiers, who helped organize the petition drive to put the project on the ballot. "It's time to move on and come up with a real solution that will provide jobs to Camden County residents and not pose a threat of destruction to Georgia's coast."

Steve Howard, Camden County's government administrator, said prior to the vote that 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."

As voters cast ballots Tuesday, county commissioners asked the Georgia Court of Appeals to temporarily halt certification of the election. Commissioners argued unsuccessfully in a lower court that Georgia's constitution doesn't give voters power to veto the spaceport project with a referendum.

The Court of Appeals passed the legal motion to the Georgia Supreme Court, calling the county's request "an extraordinary remedy."

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.

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 the motive. 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.

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