Test from Camden County in 2017. (Spaceportcamden.us)

An expected decision from federal regulators on licensing Spaceport Camden has been delayed yet again, while in the meantime county residents are employing a rarely-invoked constitutional right to quash their local government’s planned rocket launch site.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced it would not issue its Record of Decision on the project Wednesday as planned, pushing the decision back at least until Monday.

“The FAA is finalizing its coordination efforts and anticipates an update on Dec. 20,” wrote spokesman Steve Kulm.

Meanwhile, local residents have advanced a two-pronged strategy to derail what has been a cornerstone of Camden’s board of commissioners’ economic development strategy. The FAA’s Record of Decision is a first step necessary for the FAA to issue a launch site operator license. That license is necessary for the county government to exercise its option to buy the former Union Carbide industrial property where it plans to site the spaceport.

On Tuesday, citizens filed a petition in Probate Court to force a referendum on the purchase of the land. Those same spaceport opponents also filed in Superior Court requesting a temporary restraining order and injunction to prevent Camden officials from buying the property before the referendum can be held.

A hearing on the injunction request is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Friday in Camden County Superior Court.

Camden petitions support the effort to “deny the Commissioners the right to spend taxpayer funds to buy the Union Carbide property identified for Spaceport Camden.” Credit: Megan Desrosiers/One hundred Miles

“I don’t want to saddle my grandchildren with the debt on 4,400 acres of highly contaminated land,” said James Goodman, a St. Marys councilman, who along with Paul Harris filed the petition in Probate Court, handing over 3,850 signatures from registered voters in the county.

The Camden County-led spaceport project aims to launch small rockets from the former Union Carbide site on the marsh in the unincorporated county. The commercial rockets would lift off from the mainland and fly over nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore. Several elected and appointed public officials in Camden support the spaceport as a job creator for the mostly rural county of about 55,000.

“Help us bring thousands of jobs to Georgia – from aerospace engineers, to construction and supply chain jobs as well as tourism dollars to the region!” says the Spaceport Camden Facebook page. The Environmental Impact Statement indicates the spaceport will create 77 full-time jobs to operate the facility, plus 60-70 temporary jobs during construction.

The National Park Service, park visitors and island residents, among others, object to this plan. Goodman points to million of pounds of waste on the 4,000 acre site that once was owned by Union Carbide and has been identified by the county commissioners to be repurposed for the potential spaceport.

Regulators at the Georgia Environmental Protection Division set up a hazardous waste landfill on the site when Union Carbide was still operating there. EPD documents show that across the 22-acre landfill and its 36-acre buffer exist 2.8 million pounds of aldicarb, the active ingredient in the pesticide Temik, 37,500 pounds of acetone and methyl chloride, both solvents, and empty boxes and bags containing aldicarb residue. The landfill and a buffer around it would be carved out from the portion sold to Camden for the spaceport, but an environmental covenant on the site places restrictions on the entire site, not just the landfill. Among other provisions, the covenant prohibits housing anywhere within its boundaries to reduce exposure to lingering pollutants.

“It goes back many years in the history of Camden County, for the production of pesticides, and then prior to that for military trip flares, and then prior to that the Thiokol solid booster engine fuel,” Goodman said.

Critics of the proposed spaceport have invoked Georgia Constitution Article IX, Section II, paragraph I(b)(2), which spells out how citizens can to seek the remedy of a referendum for local government actions they oppose.

That paragraph states, “Amendments to or repeals of such local acts or ordinances, resolutions or regulations… may be initiated by a petition filed with the judge of the probate court of the county containing , … in cases of a county with a population of more than 50,000, at least 10 percent of the electors registered to vote in the last general election, which petition shall specifically set forth the exact language of the proposed amendment or repeal.”

The law sets out a timetable for what happens next.

“They have to within 60 days verify that we have the requisite number of signatures,” said Megan Desrosiers of One Hundred Miles, which helped verify the signatures. “And then they have to establish a date for a referendum no more than 90 days from the date of filing.”

Without a restraining order preventing the purchase of the land until a referendum can be held, the petitioners lose their constitutional right to seek this repeal, argue Savannah-based attorneys Dana Braun, Kim Cofer Butler and Philip Thompson of the firm Ellis Painter Attorneys at Law in the court filing. The attorneys represent plaintiffs James Goodman and Paul A. Harris in their case against the Camden County Board of Commissioners.

Ellis Painter Attorneys offered their services at a reduced rate for a matter of public interest, Desrosiers said. It’s unclear who will be paying, especially if the county mounts a strong challenge.

“There are a lot of people involved and at some point someone is going to have to pass the hat and find funds to pay,” Desrosiers said.

Camden County Attorney John Myers and Camden Spokesman John Simpson did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. 

Goodman, a retired health care administrator, alluded to the fact the environmental analysis of Spaceport Camden evaluated safety based on the use of a hypothetical small rocket whose specifications don’t match any rocket yet developed. He is also concerned with the amount of money spent by the county since it began exploring the spaceport concept in 2012. County budget documents indicate costs for consultants and studies for the spaceport are about $11 million.

“I have a problem with the fact that $11 million have been expended and we really don’t have anything to show for it except we have the prospect of going further in debt for the development of a spaceport for a rocket that doesn’t even exist. It’s just a tremendous, I’ll call it what it is, a boondoggle.”

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