Camden County suing site owner that ended agreement to sell property for spaceport project

Union Carbide Corporation said last week that Spaceport Camden land deal is off

FILE - This artist's sketch provided by Spaceport Camden shows the launch pad complex of the proposed Spaceport Camden in Camden County. (Spaceport Camden via AP, File) (Uncredited)

The Camden County commissioners are not giving up on the dream of building a spaceport.

Camden County has filed a lawsuit against Union Carbide Corporation, the owner of a 4,000-acre industrial site that said last week it has ended a longstanding agreement to sell the property to the county’s government, whose officials worked for years on a plan to build a launch pad for commercial rockets there.

According to a statement Thursday from the Camden County Board of Commissioners, the suit, which was filed Wednesday, asks a judge to enforce the terms of the contract.

READ: Camden County Board of Commissioners’ statement on lawsuit filed against Union Carbide Corporation

Camden County officials said in the statement that Union Carbide’s action will cost the county $11 million that it has spent toward the Spaceport Camden project.

The county government in 2015 entered into an option agreement with the company to buy the land once the county obtained a spaceport operator license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA awarded the license in December. But before county commissioners could close on the land, opponents forced a referendum on the project by gathering more than 3,500 petition signatures. The project was put to a vote in March, and 72% cast ballots to block the deal.

In a statement July 21, Union Carbide noted that Camden County voters had “repudiated” the land purchase.

“As a result, there is no longer an Option Agreement in existence between the County and UCC, and UCC does not intend to convey the property to the County pursuant to the prior Option Agreement,” said the statement, emailed to The Associated Press by Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick.

Steve Howard, Camden County’s government administrator, also provided a statement from the county’s lawyers insisting the deal isn’t over.

“Union Carbide most certainly has a contract with Camden,” the statement said. “The County has indicated that it is ready, willing and able to close. We expect Union Carbide to honor its contractual commitments.”

Thursday’s statement from the county announcing the lawsuit also claims the referendum was not the reason the company called off the deal.

“The County believes that Union Carbide’s real reason for repudiating the contract had nothing to do with the referendum but was instead to allow Union Carbide to make more money on the Property than what the County had agreed to pay. That is not a legitimate reason for repudiating a contract. Assuming Union Carbide does not change its position on the contract, the County will vigorously seek to obtain relief from the Court, and to recover the attorneys’ fees spent to enforce the contract,” the statement reads.

Union Carbide declined to comment Thursday on the accusations by Camden County. The company had not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit, said spokesman Tomm Sprick.

Commissioners have insisted the spaceport project would bring economic growth not just from rocket launches, but also by attracting related industries and tourists to the community of 55,000 people on the Georgia-Florida line.

Opponents say building the spaceport on an industrial plot formerly used to manufacture pesticides and munitions would pose potential hazards that outweigh any economic benefits.

Critics, including the National Park Service, have said 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.

Camden County said Tuesday that a new study shows there isn’t a fire risk to Cumberland Island. The county said it contracted with ARCTOS, a company created in 2019 by a group of military and NASA consultants. The company conducted an analysis to examine the potential for a fire resulting from a failed launch and said there are only two scenarios that could result in fire hazard: an intact impact, or low altitude breakup, resulting in a fireball, or hot debris exceeding the auto-ignition temperature of local flora.

READ: Fire Risk Analysis for Failed Launch from Spaceport Camden

ARCTOS said it found, “There is no scenario for the vehicles being examined in which a mid-air explosion would create a fireball large enough or last long enough to expose the residents or vegetation of Cumberland Island to a secondary ground fire hazard on the island.” ARCTOS also said it found there is a low chance that debris would be hot enough to create a fire hazard. The risk of a fire after a failed rocket launch is also low, according to the study.

Camden County Board of Commissioners Chairman Gary Blount released a statement saying, “From the very beginning of this project, opponents have proposed a variety of Chicken Little scenarios that have been thoroughly debunked by actual science. This study should put an end to any further discussion of fire risk on Cumberland Island.”

The big loss at the polls in March didn’t stop county officials from pursuing the project. Commissioners in April voted unanimously to notify Union Carbide that they planned to move forward with the land purchase. The company said at the time it was evaluating the agreement.

Meanwhile, county officials are trying to have the referendum declared invalid by the Georgia Supreme Court. Their legal appeal argues that Georgia’s constitution doesn’t allow voters to veto government projects such as the spaceport. The court is scheduled to hear the case Aug. 23.

About the Authors:

Corley Peel is a Texas native and Texas Tech graduate who covered big stories in Joplin, Missouri, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Jacksonville, Florida before returning to the Lone Star State. When not reporting, Corley enjoys hot yoga, Tech Football, and finding the best tacos in town.