In a unanimous decision issued Tuesday, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld as constitutionally authorized a March 2022 referendum in which Camden County voters effectively quashed the county’s plans to develop a spaceport.
The decision could spell the end of the county’s $12 million, near decade-long quest to develop a commercial spaceport to launch small rockets. More broadly, it paves the way for county voters across the state to exercise the right to seek a referendum to undo their local government’s ordinances, resolutions, or regulations.
“We’re really happy not just for the voters, the registered electors of Camden, but also for voters in similar situations across Georgia,” said Attorney Philip Thompson, a partner with the Savannah firm Ellis Painter, which represented Probate Judge Robert C. Sweatt and citizens who brought forward the petition for a referendum. “I think it’s a good day for them.”
The project had already reached one significant milestone when the Federal Aviation Administration issued a launch site operator’s license to Camden in late 2021. But before rockets can launch the license requires Camden to purchase, lease or execute a site use agreement for the planned site of the spaceport, which is currently owned by Union Carbide Corp. Spaceport opposition targeted that purchase with its referendum.
Spaceport Camden was proposed in 2014 and was controversial from the start. Residents and visitors to Cumberland and Little Cumberland raised safety issues based on their position under the flight path of rockets. Residents on the mainland scrutinized the project’s cost and viability.
The project’s promises were “a fiction propagated by traveling spaceport salesmen,” said resident Steve Weinkle, a longtime opponent of the project.
The now departed County Administrator Steve Howard and the voted-out-of-office County Commission Chair Gary Blount championed the project as a needed economic development until they each left local government at the end of last year.
Throughout the process, the Camden County government fought its citizens at every step. The county first sought to invalidate the citizens’ petition, claiming duplicate signatures amounted to fraud. When that didn’t work it sued the county-employed Probate Court Judge Robert Sweatt who approved the petition. After the March 8 referendum, in which about 72% of voters rejected the spaceport purchase, Camden tried to prevent the Georgia Secretary of State from certifying the results.
On Oct. 6, the Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments over whether the Georgia Constitution’s Home Rule provision gave county voters the power to hold a referendum on the Camden County Board of Commissioners’ plans to purchase spaceport property.
Despite the decision, the commissioners haven’t given up on Spaceport Camden, on Tuesday afternoon issuing this statement that suggests a constitutional fix is needed:
“While the Supreme Court ruling regarding a local government’s Home Rule authority is
discouraging to hear, the Camden County Board of Commissioners respects the difficult decision made by the Justices of the Georgia Supreme Court. Clearly, given the complexity of this decision on Home Rule and how it will impact local governments moving forward, this will be a matter that the General Assembly will need to address quickly to preserve the representative democracy we have in this great state,” they wrote.
“The future of Spaceport Camden remains a decision of the Camden County Board of
Commissioners and as such will be discussed at a future meeting.”
Commissioner Jim Goodman, who won his seat in November on an anti-spaceport platform, said he did not sign on to the county’s statement. Goodman and fellow petition supporter Paul A. Harris intervened in the case on behalf of Sweatt.
“I am not interested in talking about spaceport beyond getting all of the… documents and the paper trace and finding out what the hell happened and never again pursuing something like this,” Goodman said in an interview with The Current.
At the October Supreme Court hearing, the county argued that it would be difficult to get its work accomplished if citizens could repeal decisions with a referendum. But the court sided with the voters, who found the process of collecting the requisite number of signatures an arduous one that took several years in this case.
“(T)here is little evidence that such a parade of horribles would occur, given that a county’s governing authority, which is comprised of elected officials, would be unlikely to routinely disregard the will of the electorate and given that (the constitution) provides that “[a] referendum on any such amendment or repeal shall not be held more often than once each
year,” Justice Carla Wong McMillian wrote in the decision.
Goodman agreed, saying “people don’t have the will to sign a petition every time the county buys a grader.”
“People aren’t going to second-guess the county commission unless the county commission comes out with some other bonehead decision, like the spaceport obviously was,” he said.