Camden County Superior Court Judge Stephen G. Scarlett heard arguments Friday regarding the issuance of a temporary restraining order to prevent the county from buying the land for Spaceport Camden before voters can weigh in on the decision directly.
Scarlett intends to rule on the matter next week.
Camden residents James Goodman and Paul Harris requested the restraining order on behalf of themselves and 3,850 other Camden residents who signed a petition to force a referendum on the land purchase. Without the land, the spaceport project cannot advance. But the petition, filed in Camden County Probate Court Tuesday, becomes moot if the county buys the land before voters can have their say on it.
The hearing centered on timelines.
The county has an option to buy the 4,000-acre Union Carbide site. It expires Jan. 13 but may be extended, Camden County Attorney John Myers revealed at the hearing. County officials have kept most of the details of that option agreement secret, citing an exception for real estate dealings in Georgia’s Open Records Act. But they have made it clear that the deal cannot go forward until the Federal Aviation Administration issues the county a site operating license for the spaceport. The final hurdle to clear in that process is issuing a Record of Decision, which the FAA expects to do Dec. 15, but then postponed to Dec. 20.
Myers assured the judge the county will not act on the option agreement before Christmas.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Dana Braun asked for a temporary restraining order to preserve the status quo until there’s a more formal, evidentiary hearing. If required, that hearing would take place before Jan. 13. If a referendum is approved it must take place within 90 days of the filing on Dec. 14.
“And if (the temporary restraining order) is not granted, the concern is the potential for petitioners to suffer irreparable harm, because their rights created under the Georgia constitution to petition the probate court for relief will be destroyed,” Braun said.
The county first approved the purchase option agreement on the Union Carbide property in June, 2015. It has previously been extended and is now set to run out Jan. 13, 2022, as Myers stated.
“The option has not been exercised. That option may be extended. That option may be dropped at that time,” Myers said.
Myers argued the citizens had had six years to act and had waited too long to file the petition. “If you sleep on your rights, you don’t get to assert your rights,” he said.
And he argued that no county business would ever get done if everyone acted in a similar manner.
“If folks went and petitioned the probate court every time the county did something that a few people didn’t like, that you go out and collect a few names, get a referendum and then turn that around,” he said. “So ultimately we’d never get anything done if we apply that home rule provision in the manner in which they wish to apply it.”
But Braun said it took time and effort for petitioners to collect signatures from more than 10% of active county voters. They started in 2019 and were delayed by the COVID pandemic. It took cash, too. They had to pay a court filing fee of more than $6,000 along with their petition.
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 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. The county has spent more than $10 million on the project so far, public records reveal. Opponents like Goodman point to the potential liability of owning the site where munitions and pesticides were manufactured and where a legacy of contamination lingers.
Myers emphasized the importance of the project, revealing it has had interest from the federal government.
“We have interest from numerous companies, we’re under nondisclosure agreements with most of those,” he said. “And the federal government, in fact, has contacted us regarding redundancies in the event that we’ve received this license, for federal missions with NASA, and potentially SpaceForce. So this is an important project, which should not be tripped up as we’re about to cross the goal line.”
The site license is not the final goal line, however. The FAA requires additional and more stringent analysis to actually launch a rocket once a site is approved. The rocket used as the example in the Environmental Impact Statement is a theoretical one that doesn’t yet exist. The agency reiterated its regulatory regime in a Dec. 16, 2021 letter to the Department of the Interior, which oversees the operation of Cumberland Island National Seashore and has raised concerns about Spaceport Camden.
“… (T)he FAA’s ongoing environmental review analyzes only whether to grant a license authorizing Camden County to operate Spaceport Camden; if the license is approved it would not authorize a single launch,” the letter reads in part.