Camden County voters block plan to build launchpad for commercial rockets

Move effectively stops Spaceport Camden in its tracks

CAMDEN COUNTY, Ga. – Voters in Camden County on Tuesday blocked their government from buying up a portion of land to build the nation’s 13th spaceport facility.

It’s a major blow to the project that’s been in the works for years. It effectively stops Spaceport Camden in its tracks.

After multiple legal rulings and a citizen petition, voters cast ballots Tuesday on the question of whether the county commission should be blocked from buying up a 4,000-acre plot of land for Spaceport Camden.”

Voters were asked to answer a single question, and it centered on whether they believe the county’s power to purchase the launch site should be repealed. The question reads on the ballot:

“Shall the resolutions of the Board of Commissioners of Camden County, Georgia authorizing the Option Contract with Union Carbide Corporation and Camden County’s right and option to purchase the property described therein be repealed.”

A “yes” vote meant a voter wants it repealed. A “no” vote means they support the county’s purchase. The vote was 72% yes and 28% no.

“Basically, what’s happened is that the facts have finally come out to prove to voters that there is really no future to Spaceport Camden and that we should stop paying for it,” said Steve Weinkle, who has been a vocal opponent of the project.

The referendum was called after a judge ruled last month that there were enough signatures on a petition to put this issue before voters. There was strong opposition and even a lawsuit to try to block this sale and the project at large.

Though the vote is over, the battle over whether it should have even take place continues. The county had filed a motion against the judge – claiming that the county overstepped its legal authority in allowing the referendum on this issue.

A judge already ruled against the county’s motion – but it was appealed on Monday.

As the results trickled in, News4JAX learned Jim Goodman, one of the project’s most vocal opponents who sued the county over the project, said he intends to run against 4th District Commission Chair Gary Blount.

“The current commissioner for District 4 has treated the citizens with hostility and contempt, and the only way to make sure that it won’t happen again it to take on the job myself,” Goodman told News4JAX.

Weinkle also said he plans to run for the District 2 commission seat against Chuck Clark. He plans to qualify Wednesday morning.

Both Goodman and Weinkle will run as Republicans.

A spokesperson for the county did not have a comment to provide Tuesday night, but expected to release something Wednesday.

FILE - This artist's sketch provided by Spaceport Camden shows the launch pad complex of the proposed Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Ga. A Georgia county's plan to build a launchpad for commercial rockets is going before voters in a referendum forced by opponents of the project. The special election Tuesday, March 8, 2022, in coastal Camden County gives voters a chance to block county commissioners from purchasing 4,000 acres of land for the planned Spaceport Camden. (Spaceport Camden via AP, File)

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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Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.