Georgia high court won’t halt spaceport vote certification

Mar 10, 2022, 4:00 PM | Updated: 4:47 pm
FILE - This artist's sketch provided by Spaceport Camden shows the launch pad complex of the propos...

FILE - This artist's sketch provided by Spaceport Camden shows the launch pad complex of the proposed Spaceport Camden in Camden County, Ga. A Georgia county's plan to build a launchpad for commercial rockets is going before voters in a referendum forced by opponents of the project. The special election Tuesday, March 8, 2022 in coastal Camden County gives voters a chance to block county commissioners from purchasing 4,000 acres of land for the planned Spaceport Camden. (Spaceport Camden via AP, File)

(Spaceport Camden via AP, File)

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia’s highest court refused Thursday to interfere with election officials finalizing results of a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly rejected plans to buy land for a rocket launch pad.

The order by the Georgia Supreme Court denied an emergency motion by county commissioners seeking to temporarily halt certification of the Tuesday election, which aims to stop commissioners from closing on the purchase of 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) for a commercial spaceport.

Coastal Camden County at the Georgia-Florida line spent a decade and $10.3 million pursuing construction of Spaceport Camden, only to see voters renounce the project by 72% — a nearly 3-to-1 margin. The referendum was forced by opponents who say the spaceport would pose serious environmental and safety risks that outweigh any economic benefits.

Camden County commissioners have shown no sign of abandoning the project. They were still reviewing the court’s order Thursday afternoon and had no immediate comment, said John Simpson, a spokesman for the spaceport project.

Spaceport critic John Goodman said it was time for commissioners to “finally stop it, no more legal challenges.”

“The will of the people should be clear,” said Goodman, an elected councilman for the Camden County city of St. Marys. “If they are interested at all in the will of the people, what else is there to do?”

The referendum results are expected to be certified by Friday, Camden County elections supervisor Shannon Nettles said.

Meanwhile, a Georgia lawmaker who represents Camden County said Thursday that he will seek to quickly dissolve a Camden Spaceport Authority that he helped create by state law in 2019. Republican state Rep. Steven Sainz said he wants to make sure county commissioners don’t try to circumvent the voters’ will by using the authority to buy the spaceport land.

“I feel like there’s no other way for me to represent my constituents if I’m not acting on a 72% vote,” said Sainz, who plans to introduce a bill in the legislature next week to sunset the authority. “I hope the county commission feels the same way.”

Camden County officials have long insisted the spaceport would bring economic growth not just from rocket launches, but also by attracting related industries as well as tourists to the community of 55,000 people.

Critics including the National Park Service have said rockets exploding after launch 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.

After years of study and review, the Federal Aviation Administration granted a license in December for Camden County to build and operate a spaceport that would be the 13th in the U.S.

But before commissioners could close on purchasing the property, a judge ordered that the land deal be put before voters. Opponents gathered more 3,500 petition signatures from registered voters to put the issue on the ballot.

Attorneys for Camden County have gone to court seeking to have the election declared invalid. They argue Georgia’s constitution does not allow voters to veto the spaceport project by calling a referendum. The state Supreme Court declined commissioners’ request to delay certification of the vote until the legal battle is resolved.

Last Friday, commissioners called a special meeting to name board members to the Camden Spaceport Authority, which under state law has the authority to purchase property.

Steve Howard, Camden County’s government administrator, declined to comment Monday when asked whether commissioners intended for the spaceport authority to buy land for the project if the referendum blocked commissioners from making the purchase.

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Georgia high court won’t halt spaceport vote certification