Georgia Plan for Spaceport on Coast Could Head to Voters if Judge Sides With Opponents

A group of residents in Camden County, Georgia, asked a judge on Tuesday to let voters decide whether their tax dollars should be spent on a new spaceport the county is currently trying to acquire land for.

While county officials supporting "Spaceport Camden" say it will boost the economy through its satellite launches and tourist appeal, opponents worry this boost is not guaranteed and that the launches could threaten nearby federally protected land.

Georgia's constitution allows special elections for local issues if 10 percent or more of a county's voters sign a petition. A Camden County conservation group said it collected over 3,800 signatures, which meets that requirement as the county has fewer than 35,000 registered voters.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett plans to rule on January 23 on whether to hold an election, with the related land purchase now paused until that date. If the judge rules in favor of an election, it will likely take place in mid-March.

John Myers, the county's attorney, told the judge Tuesday that delaying the 4,000-acre land purchase could cause the seller to back out, wasting millions of dollars that were already spent on the project.

"It could kill this deal," Myers said. "We will have a $10.3 million bill that we have paid over the past nine years that we will never recoup. And we will have ended the spaceport project here in this courtroom."

NASA, French Guiana, rocket
A group of Georgia residents has petitioned to allow voters to decide whether the state's Camden County should be able to buy land to build a spaceport. Above, Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope onboard lifts up from the launchpad at Europe's Spaceport at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on December 25, 2021. Photo by Jody Amiet/AFP via Getty Images

Officials in the county of 55,000 near the Georgia-Florida line have spent years pursuing Spaceport Camden, calling it a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity that would boost the economy not only by launching satellites into orbit but also by luring supporting industries and tourists.

Opponents say there's no guarantee the project will deliver economic growth and that the proposed location poses threats to nearby barrier islands. Critics, including the National Park Service, say the county's plan to launch small rockets over two barrier islands poses a risk of explosive misfires that could rain fiery debris onto Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 campers and tourists each year.

Despite those concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration granted the county a license December 20 to build and operate what would be the nation's 13th commercial spaceport. The FAA noted in a letter that further reviews and a separate license would be needed before the spaceport could launch rockets—and said there's no guarantee that launches would be approved.

Now, spaceport opponents are trying to stop the project at the ballot box. Petitions filed with a probate judge last month call for a referendum that would let local voters decide whether or not Camden County buys the property—a former industrial site—on which it wants to build the spaceport.

Paul Harris, a county resident and former airline pilot, is one of the petition signers who filed suit in Camden County Superior Court to halt the land purchase until either the spaceport referendum is held or gets denied. He testified Tuesday that he doubts the project will bring economic growth and believes the county is wasting taxpayer money.

"There are many more hurdles and tens of millions more dollars to be spent before there could ever be a launch there," Harris said. He added, "Have a referendum and let the taxpayers decide."

Dana Braun, an attorney for the petition signers, said allowing Camden County to buy the spaceport property before people could vote would infringe on their rights to a referendum under Georgia's constitution. Myers, the county's attorney, said the petitioners shouldn't be allowed to delay the project because they waited until the last minute.

County officials say their purchase option with the land's current owners expires Thursday. And though the agreement has been extended three times since 2015, there's no guarantee the landowner will agree to do so again, said Steve Howard, Camden County's government administrator.

Howard told the judge there have been discussions between attorneys for the county and the landowner about the purchase option, but, "I can't say it will or it won't be extended."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.