Camden County has failed in its bid to recoup through the courts some of the millions it spent to develop a spaceport.
The county filed suit against Union Carbide last year in federal court for the Southern District of Georgia in Brunswick, claiming “unjust enrichment” and seeking a return of up to $2.64 million associated with its option to buy the chemical giant’s 4,000-acre property in Camden as a commercial rocket launch site. The county also made a claim for legal fees.
In all, Camden County has spent more than $12 million to develop its Spaceport Camden to launch small commercial rockets up to 12 times a year. County leaders, including former County Administrator Steve Howard and former County Commission Chairman Gary Blount promoted the proposed spaceport as an economic engine in the 56,000-person county. Spaceport opponents derided it as a boondoggle that was dangerously flawed because it would launch rockets over residents and visitors on nearby Cumberland and Little Cumberland islands.
The county sought to secure the land for its spaceport early, signing an option agreement with Union Carbide in June 2015. The contract provided the county the option to purchase Union Carbide’s land for $4.8 million and required the company to keep the property off the market. The initial option period was two years. The contract was extended repeatedly to allow time for the county to obtain the launch site permit it needed from the Federal Aviation Administration, which it did in late 2021.
In all, the county paid Union Carbide $2.64 million for the initial agreement and two extensions. An additional two extensions were provided at no cost. The contract specified that the option money would be deducted from the purchase price.
Before Camden could buy the property, voters forced a repeal of the county’s decision to buy the land. The county fought the results of the 2022 referendum but lost at the Georgia Supreme Court in a decision handed down in February.
Union Carbide held that the referendum results invalidated the option contract going forward.
Camden’s initial suit included a claim for breach of contract. That was dropped after the high court upheld the result of the referendum. The county then argued there was no valid contract because the referendum result retroactively invalidated the option agreement.
Judge Wood disagreed.
“While the Referendum stripped the County of its authority to proceed forward with the Option Contract, it did not retroactively strip the County of its authority to enter into the Option Agreement in the first place,” she wrote. “The 2022 repeal of the authorizing
resolutions cannot reach back in time to invalidate the otherwise lawful actions of the Board.”
Because the county’s substantive claims failed, so did its claim for attorney’s fees.
It’s unclear how much the county spent pursuing this lawsuit, but in 2022, Camden signed up with Atlanta’s Robbins Alloy Belinfante Littefield LLC “in connection with the dispute and potential litigation with Union Carbide regarding the proposed Spaceport property,” at rates up to $750 an hour.
Two spaceport-related cases are still pending:
• National Parks Conservation Association and others (including One Hundred Miles & Little Cumberland Island Property Owners Association) v. the Federal Aviation Administration is in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It’s a challenge to the FAA over the issuance of the license to Camden County. Camden intervened in the case as an interested party.
• One Hundred Miles v. Camden County is a suit over the production of Spaceport Camden materials. It was filed in 2019 and is pending before Judge Stephen Scarlett in the Superior Court in Camden County. Camden County released some of the requested material earlier this year. But the release of other materials requested by One Hundred Miles remains disputed, with the county claiming it may still be covered by attorney-client privilege and by other federal security exceptions.