A judge in Camden County has denied petitioners an injunction and cleared the way for Camden to purchase 4,000 acres of former industrial property where it plans to develop a commercial spaceport.
Camden citizens waited too long to try to prevent the purchase, Judge Stephen Scarlett wrote in the 10-page order issued Thursday.
“Had they filed at their first opportunity, or even if they had filed a year ago, or six months ago for that matter, they would not be in the critical situation they find themselves in now; and in that scenario, the Court perhaps would be looking at this case differently,” Scarlett wrote. “However, under the circumstances as they currently are, the Court finds that if Plaintiffs’ constitutional right of referendum ends up frustrated by the County’s contractual right to purchase the real estate, it unfortunately will be the result of Plaintiffs’ own doing.”
Camden residents James Goodman and Paul Harris requested the injunction on behalf of themselves and about 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. The petition, filed in Camden County Probate Court Dec. 14 is still under review to determine if the required 10% of registered voters signed it. The Georgia Constitution gives the court 60 days to vet signatures and another 30 days to hold a referendum if required. But a referendum would be moot if the county buys the land before voters can have their say on it.
Petition signers, many of whom see the spaceport project as a boondoggle, oppose the land purchase. The county touts it as an economic boost and job creator.
Deadline not made public
Attorney Dana Braun argued for the plaintiffs that while the petitioners were aware that the county agreed to purchase the land once the Federal Aviation Administration issued a spaceport license, as it did Dec. 20, they didn’t know a deadline was looming. The county had not publicly revealed the details of the purchase option agreement, including its expiration date, before the hearing.
The county’s real estate dealings are exempt from public scrutiny under Georgia’s Open Record Act until a property is acquired or the transaction terminated. The county invoked this exemption repeatedly over the Union Carbide property purchase option. The county provided a copy of the agreement only for the judge to examine in private.
Nevertheless, Scarlett rejected Braun’s argument.
“The bottom line, the Board of Commissioners’ plans to purchase Union Carbide was not a secret, as Plaintiffs asked the court to believe,” he wrote.
Plaintiffs were weighing their options on an appeal Thursday afternoon, said Megan Desrosiers, president and CEO of One Hundred Miles, which helped collect signatures for the petition.
“He made his ruling on a legal issue,” Desrosiers wrote in an email to The Current. “Moving forward to purchase the property and not giving the residents of Camden County a chance to vote is a moral issue.”
Camden County spokesman John Simpson did not immediately reply to a request for comment Thursday.
Agreement quietly extended
In the injunction hearing last week Camden argued it risked losing the more than $10 million it had sunk into spaceport plans if it were forced to postpone the purchase of the property for the facility. An option to buy the 4,000 acres from Union Carbide was set to expire in just two days, Administrator Steve Howard testified at a hearing on Jan. 11.
Howard said the county was in talks with Union Carbide but he had no knowledge of the substance of those talks and whether they would produce an extension.
“I can’t say it will or it won’t,” Howard testified. “If I could predict that I wouldn’t be here today.”
But at the hearing’s conclusion, Judge Stephen Scarlett said he would rule on the matter by Jan. 23, effectively making the issue of the Jan. 13 deadline moot.
And by Jan. 13, Union Carbide did extend the option agreement, as it has three times in the past.
The County Commission met on deadline day and voted on the terms in closed session, spokesman John Simpson wrote in an email in response to an inquiry from The Current. He provided a statement from the commission:
“(T)he Camden County Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the land option extension terms offered by Union Carbide in order to preserve its investment in the recently issued Launch Site Operator License for Spaceport Camden.”
Simpson provided no further details, such as the date of the new deadline.
As of Jan. 19, Scarlett had not issued his decision and the county had not updated him on the status of the option agreement.
Instead, Braun notified the court. Braun had asked County Attorney John Myers to make the court aware of the change by providing the judge a sealed copy of the extended option agreement. Myers agreed. But when it didn’t appear to be done by Wednesday, Braun filed a notice to the court himself. He included emails from Myers that verify the county approved an extension.