Future of proposed Spaceport Camden remains in limbo after voters reject plan

Camden County officials hope to purchase land formerly owned by Union Carbide Corp. in Kingsland to develop a commercial spaceport off the coast of Georgia. Voters rejected the plan this week in a special election, but the Georgia Supreme Court will rule on the county's attempt to void the results of that election. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

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Camden County officials hope to purchase land formerly owned by Union Carbide Corp. in Kingsland to develop a commercial spaceport off the coast of Georgia. Voters rejected the plan this week in a special election, but the Georgia Supreme Court will rule on the county's attempt to void the results of that election. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

Conventional wisdom would say that the ongoing saga over a proposed commercial launchpad off the coast of Camden County came to an end last week when local residents voted nearly 3-to-1 to stop county officials from buying the land for the project.

Conventional wisdom would be wrong.

Instead, the yearslong battle will continue after county officials preemptively filed a lawsuit to void the results of the special election. A judge tossed out the county’s attempt. County officials are planning to appeal the ruling and asked the Georgia Supreme Court to keep the county election board from certifying the results, but the justices unanimously denied the motion Thursday.

About 72% of the nearly 6,000 Camden County residents who voted on the proposal opposed the county buying 4,000 acres owned by Union Carbide Corp. — which over the years has served as a manufacturing depot for insecticides, chemicals and trip flares — to build Spaceport Camden. There are about 34,000 registered voters in Camden County.

“The ability of a bare minority of registered voters to trigger a referendum election is among the key issues that the Georgia Court of Appeals determined should be decided by the Georgia Supreme Court,” Camden County officials said in a statement.

After years of delays, county officials in December secured a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration to build the spaceport, allowing them to make good on a deal with the chemical company that owns the coastal land.

Residents successfully petitioned the local court in January to trigger the special election. Opponents of the purchase say they don’t think the county should buy potentially contaminated land.

“It was a great day Tuesday until we realized that the county commissioners had yet again taken legal action to prevent the citizens from exercising their constitutional right to vote,” said Jim Goodman, a Camden County resident who sued to stop the county from purchasing the land. “It really begs the question: What are they hiding?”

Spaceport officials are courting private companies to launch small rockets — sending satellites, supplies and possibly people into orbit — up to 12 times a year from the site.

The county has spent more than $10 million in the past seven years to pursue the project.

Goodman said residents are worried that county officials could go around the will of the voters before the case makes it to the Supreme Court. Camden officials have met to appoint members to a “Camden County Spaceport Authority” that was created by the General Assembly in 2019. The authority — which has the power to, among other things, make land purchases — was not formed until after the judge tossed the county’s bid to void the special election.