Camden County cannot purchase the Union Carbide property it wants for a spaceport until local voters weigh in on the deal, according to a new judicial ruling issued Thursday.
Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett’s order represents a victory for Camden residents who have spearheaded an increasingly acrimonious dispute with the elected commissioners in the county. At issue is the government’s controversial plan to launch rockets from a polluted industrial zone that the local government says will create jobs in the county but opponents say is an environmental disaster in the making.
Judge Scarlett’s ruling prevents Camden from moving ahead with the next step of their plan: purchasing 4,000 acres of land for the spaceport until after a March 8 referendum called by citizen activists.
“Camden County is hereby enjoined from closing on the purchase of the Union Carbide property at least through and including March 8, 2022, and until such time as the election called for by the Probate Court is completed and the outcome is known and made public,” he wrote in the order.
The judge delivered a second blow to Camden County by denying a request from the county to require that the two county residents who have spearheaded local opposition to the spaceport to post a $20 million bond.
“It is further ordered that the Defendant’s motion for bond pending appeal is hereby denied,” he wrote.
Scarlett also opened a window on the long-running dispute pitting county commissioners, who have spent millions of dollars already on consultants lobbying for licenses for the spaceport, and their opponents who for years have argued for more transparency about the program.
Judge Scarlett said that the county’s purchase option agreement with Union Carbide — a document the county has not made public and that the judge only reviewed Thursday morning under seal — gave him pause.
“After reviewing that document, I am struggling a little bit about reconciling the testimony of last month’s hearing… as it relates to this language in the document,” he said Tuesday.
In Thursday’s order he outlined that testimony at the Jan. 11 hearing was hard to reconcile with the terms in the fourth extension of the Union Carbide purchase option agreement signed just two days later. County Manager Steve Howard had testified that the county was in danger of losing the $10.3 million already invested in the Spaceport Camden project if no further extension was granted and that he had no indication that it would be. Although negotiations were ongoing, he wasn’t involved in them, he testified.
“I can’t say it will or won’t” he testified. “If I could predict that I wouldn’t be here today.”
Yet less than 48 hours later, the agreement was extended.
Meanwhile, the Camden County Board of Elections and Registration meets at 6 p.m. today (Feb. 11, 2022). Its agenda includes hammering out details of the upcoming special election, such as voting locations, deadlines for registration and absentee voting. The board will also consider hiring outside legal counsel specializing in Georgia election law.