Georgia’s public referendum law at stake as spaceport fight reaches Supreme Court

By: - September 20, 2022 1:00 am

Spaceport Camden’s proximity to Cumberland Island contributed to opposition to county officials’ plans to launch rockets from the mainland. A contract dispute between Camden County and property owner Union Carbide has put that deal in jeopardy and on Oct. 6 the Georgia Supreme Court will hear the county’s appeal of a referendum invalidating the deal. National Park Service

Union Carbide’s decision to back out of a land deal for a Camden County spaceport has sparked more lawsuits ahead of next month’s Georgia Supreme Court hearing of a challenge to a public vote that has scuttled the project for now.

Attorneys representing the county and a group of residents are set to argue before the state’s supreme court on Oct. 6 whether a March voter referendum blocking the spaceport is legal. When Union Carbide said it no longer intended to sell the former industrial site to the county to build the spaceport, it set off legal action that has led to the county fighting back and environmentalists demanding the release of reports that would further expose the risky and expensive rocket launch venture.

The Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building will host the Supreme Court’s hearing in a case that could reverberate statewide for years, as it could affect residents’ ability to challenge local projects in the future. Deploying a rarely used clause in the Georgia Constitution, Camden’s voters rejected the county’s land purchase agreement with Union Carbide in March.

Coastal protection advocacy group One Hundred Miles is now requesting the suspension of its lawsuit be lifted so that more details on the spaceport deal can be revealed. 

The stay was ordered by a superior court judge on July 21 pending the outcome of the Supreme Court case. According to One Hundred Miles, the documents related to the purchase of the property should no longer be considered confidential since Union Carbide said this summer that it was no longer bound by the option agreement for the 4,000-acre property after Camden voters invalidated it.

As a result of One Hundred Miles’ open records requests dating back to 2015, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit on its behalf against Camden County and former spaceport consultant Andrew Nelson.

Now that Union Carbide has announced its plans to use the property for conservation, Camden officials can’t rely on the option agreement to avoid sharing spaceport documents, said Megan Desrosiers, president and CEO of One Hundred Miles.

“Camden County has spent millions of dollars on a spaceport that taxpayers have soundly rejected, all the while keeping residents in the dark and refusing to provide funding for critical county services like emergency response, animal shelters, and libraries,” she said. “We need the documents now more than ever to understand how this bad project was greenlighted, and so residents can hold county officials accountable.”

While Camden continues to defend that lawsuit, it’s also going on the offensive against Union Carbide for backing out of a deal that has so far cost the county more than $10.3 million, or 3% of its budget since 2015.

In December 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration granted the county a license to launch up to 12 rockets annually, but it was conditioned on the requirement that the commercial spaceport be built on the land situated at the mouths of the Satilla River and Crooked River, and inland from Cumberland Island and Little Cumberland Island. Residents were able to get a restraining order quickly while they worked on a petition which led to the successful referendum overturning the county commission’s resolutions approving the contract.

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Because of the complexities of the FAA approval process, Camden filed an exclusive right to purchase the Cumberland Island property instead of purchasing it in 2015.

Even before Camden’s voters overwhelmingly rejected the project in March, behind-the-scenes negotiations were already faltering. 

“Meanwhile, even prior to the referendum, Union Carbide stonewalled and sought to avoid its contractual obligations,” Camden argues in the suit. “Rather than engage with Camden County to work towards completing required items under the option contract, Union Carbide was non-responsive or worked against Camden County’s efforts to perform the contract terms.”

Further, the county claims the Union Carbide agreement was simply a cash grab, and because the company refused to close, the county had no choice but to trigger a 90-day closing window that began on April 12, the county said in its suit.

“Union Carbide’s real reason for repudiating the contract had nothing to do with the referendum but was instead about money: Union Carbide’s intent is to reap more money from the property through lucrative ‘conservation easement tax credits,’ combined with potentially selling the property for more money,” Camden said in the lawsuit. 

As Union Carbide announced in July it would no longer sell the property to the county, a company spokesman said the company was committed to safeguarding the property’s conservation value.

Camden officials have promoted the spaceport as the gateway to a $450 billion industry that can diversify the local economy, increase science and technology opportunities for students,‌ ‌and attract‌ ‌high-paying‌ ‌jobs.

Spaceport opponents accuse the backers of exaggerating economic benefits. The National Park Service and conservationists have warned of rocket explosions causing wildfires and contaminating coastal marshes and barrier islands.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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