A Georgia county’s plan to build a rocket launch pad for sending satellites into space was put to voters Tuesday in a referendum forced by opponents who believe the project poses too many safety and environmental risks to outweigh any economic benefits.
Camden County received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate a commercial spaceport on the Georgia coast a few months ago, after pursuing the project for a decade and $10.3 million.
Before county officials could complete their purchase of 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) for Spaceport Camden, a judge ordered that the land deal be put to a vote by county residents after opponents gathered over 3,500 petition signatures calling for a special election.
Camden County, located on the Georgia-Florida border, has been working since 2012 to build and operate the 13th licensed U.S. launch site for private rockets. Supporters say it’s a chance for the 55,000-person county to join the commercial space race while also attracting supporting industries and tourists.
“Launches at Spaceport Camden would bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars in economic activity to our restaurants, hotels, and businesses,” said Jimmy Starline, a former county commission chairman who supports the spaceport.
Others argue that the proposed launch site, a former industrial plot used to manufacture pesticides and munitions, poses environmental and safety risks. Rockets exploding soon after launch, according to critics, could rain fiery debris onto Little Cumberland Island, which has about 40 private homes, and neighboring Cumberland Island, a federally protected wilderness visited by about 60,000 tourists each year.
Jim Goodman, a retired healthcare administrator and St. Marys city councilman in Camden County, said he initially supported the spaceport proposal. He changed his mind “as more and more facts came to light, when you realized what they intended to do was launch rockets over people’s heads,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be concerned if it was built over clear ocean and not on contaminated land,” said Goodman, one of two spaceport opponents named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit that paved the way for the vote.
According to Steve Howard, Camden County’s government administrator, the chances of anyone being injured or killed during a launch are comparable to being struck by lightning.
Even if the spaceport is constructed, there is no guarantee that the project will launch its first rocket anytime soon. Despite an increase in demand for commercial launches over the last decade, more than half of licensed U.S. spaceports have never hosted a licensed launch. In a December letter, the FAA stated that another round of safety and environmental assessments will be required before anyone can launch rockets from the Camden County site. The agency issued a warning that “many more reviews remain, and no outcome is guaranteed.”
During the early voting period, which ended Friday, more than 2,300 people, or nearly 7% of Camden County voters, cast ballots. Another 100 absentee ballots were returned by mail, according to Shannon Nettles, the county elections supervisor.
County commissioners unsuccessfully attempted to halt the election in court, arguing that Georgia’s constitution does not allow voters to force a referendum in order to repeal local government resolutions. Last week, when ballots were already being cast, a judge denied their legal motion. Camden County’s attorney informed the judge that he intended to file an appeal challenging the election’s legitimacy.
In addition, commissioners voted in a special meeting Friday to appoint the first members of the Camden County Spaceport Authority, which was approved by Georgia lawmakers in 2019. The state law that established the spaceport authority gives it the authority to purchase property.
If voters successfully prevent the county commission from closing the deal, Goodman and other project opponents believe the commissioners will try to use their authority to buy the spaceport property.
The county administrator, Howard, declined to comment on whether the spaceport authority might try to buy the land. “I can’t speculate on what people will or will not do,” he said. In a Facebook video, Republican Rep. Steven Sainz of Camden County warned commissioners that if they attempted to use the spaceport authority to thwart the will of voters, he would immediately request that the legislature dissolve the authority.