Judge: Spaceport land deal must wait for March 8 election

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — A judge Thursday blocked a Georgia county from buying land for a long-sought commercial spaceport until the project goes before voters in a special election next month.

Commissioners in coastal Camden County have spent the past decade and more than $10 million pursuing a commercial launchpad. Opponents who fear the proposed Spaceport Camden poses economic risks and environmental threats hope to derail the project at the ballot box.

A Probate Court judge ruled Tuesday that opponents had gathered enough petition signatures to force a special election March 8. Camden County voters will be asked to decide whether they approve of commissioners buying 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) to build the spaceport.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett granted opponents an injunction Thursday that prohibits commissioners from closing on the property, a former industrial site, “until the election is completed and the votes are tallied.”

“The county has moved full steam ahead on this project without regard to the citizens of Camden County,” said Megan Derosiers, president of the coastal Georgia conservation group One Hundred Miles, which helped gather more than 3,500 signatures to force the vote. “Finally, a judge is giving them some breathing room and another judge is recognizing their right to vote on this issue.”

The Federal Aviation Administration granted Camden County a license Dec. 20 to build and operate what would be the nation’s 13th commercial spaceport. The FAA noted in a letter that further reviews and a separate license would be needed before the spaceport could launch rockets — and said there’s no guarantee that launches would be approved.

Camden County officials predicted they will prevail in the March election. They have long argued that a spaceport would boost the economy in the community of 55,000 people — not just by sending satellites into orbit, but also by luring supporting industries and tourists.

“Camden County voters have a very simple choice ahead of them,” said Gary Blount, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. “Do they want to surrender the recently awarded FAA license for Spaceport Camden and the economic opportunity that accrues from this $450 billion industry? Or do county residents want a diversified economy, increased STEM opportunities for students and new high paying jobs?”

Opponents of the project near the Georgia-Florida line say there’s no guarantee the spaceport will deliver growth, and the proposed location poses a risk of explosive misfires that could send flaming debris raining down onto nearby barrier islands.

Critics, including the National Park Service, say rockets exploding soon after launch could threated Little Cumberland Island, where landowners have about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists each year.

Opponents forced an election on the spaceport using a provision of Georgia’s constitution that allows for special elections on local issues if 10% of a county’s registered voters sign a petition.

Scarlett initially refused to make Camden County wait on an election before closing on the spaceport property. The judge reconsidered after spaceport opponents appealed his ruling and commissioners obtained an extension of the January deadline on their to option purchase the property.