A hearing in Camden County Superior Court Tuesday will determine if Camden County can move forward with its purchase of land for its planned spaceport or if it has to temporarily delay the purchase until the probate court evaluates a request to let voters decide the matter.
The Federal Aviation Administration last month gave Camden County its long sought after license to operate a spaceport, but the rural south Georgia county doesn’t yet own the property from which the rockets would launch.
Local opponents of the project in late December invoked a seldom-used provision of the Georgia Constitution and filed a petition with what they claim are signatures from at least 10 percent of the county’s voters requesting a referendum on the land purchase. Organizers, including named plaintiffs James Goodman and Paul Harris, calculated that 3,450 signatures were needed based on voter rolls.
A temporary restraining order was granted in December to prevent the land purchase until the injunction hearing, initially scheduled for Jan. 5 but postponed to Jan. 11. Judge Stephen Scarlett will determine if the county can be barred from the purchase of 4,000 acres from Union Carbide until that petition can be vetted in probate court. If the petition meets the requirements for a referendum, the vote would be held by mid-March.
The county-led project aims to launch small rockets from the former industrial site. The small commercial rockets would lift off from the marsh-front site on the mainland and soar over nearby Cumberland Island National Seashore, a concern for visitors to the national park and residents alike. A dozen other spaceports are already licensed around the U.S., but none of them launch rockets vertically over nearby residents.
In its motion to dismiss the request for an injunction Camden County Attorney John Myers notes that some residents signed the petition multiple times. In its examination of about a quarter of the signatures, the county found 41 duplicates. This constitutes fraud, the brief concludes.
“Defendant asserts that the willing and knowing inclusion of duplicate signatures and multiple petition formats is a deliberate attempt to cause confusion and delay in the accurate tabulation and verification of the signatures needed and is intended to mislead the Court as to the accuracy and numerical sufficiency of the proposed signatures and is thus a fraud upon the court,” Myers wrote in his brief.
The county subpoenaed both named plaintiffs and at least three other petition signers to be questioned at the hearing.
Megan Desrosiers, executive director of One Hundred Miles, helped collect and verify signatures. She’s confident the probate court will find them sufficient.
“The reason they’ve subpoenaed those three is because they signed a petition multiple times, and they’re trying to say that the petitioners are willfully trying to mislead the probate court into thinking that they have more signatures than they have,” said Desrosiers, who verified and counted signatures herself. “I counted them, and I did not count duplicates.”
County Attorney John Myers also argues in his brief that the plaintiffs waited too long to bring their petitions to probate and superior court. The requests were filed Dec. 14 and the county’s option to buy the property expires Jan. 13.
But the county did not make its option deadline public until the December hearing.
“That option, I would make a representation to the court, does not run out until mid January, January 13 to be precise,” Myers said at that hearing. “The option has not been exercised, that option may be extended, that option may be dropped at that time.”
The option has previously been extended, but the county didn’t make the terms public, said Plaintiffs’ Attorney Dana Braun.
“In all these years the only thing that’s been produced is this agreement from 2015 which expired in 2018,” he said in a telephone interview.
Myers has also asked the judge that if the injunction is ordered, to require the plaintiffs to “post security of $20 million, an amount twice that of the expenditures to date ($10,332,310)” to protect the county from the injury that the delay could produce. A delay could either “kill the deal” or force the county to pay Union Carbide to extend the option, he wrote.
Neither Myers nor Union Carbide immediately responded to a request for comment.