Georgia Supreme Court throws Camden spaceport into uncertainty

Credit: Maya T. Prabhu

Credit: Maya T. Prabhu

The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that Camden County must honor the results of a March 2022 referendum where its voters rejected plans to purchase land that would have become a commercial launch pad.

When Camden County voters rejected the planned purchase by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio last year, officials sued the probate judge who approved the special election.

Since 2015, Camden County, in the southeast corner of Georgia, has sought approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to build Spaceport Camden, a proposed 12,000-acre facility. The county has spent about $11 million to pursue the project.

It’s unclear what the future of the spaceport is now. In a statement, the Camden County Board of Commissioners called the decision “discouraging.”

“The future of Spaceport Camden remains a decision of the Camden County Board of Commissioners and as such will be discussed at a future meeting,” the statement said.

Camden County officials sued Probate Judge Robert Sweatt, whose validation of the signatures of 4,000 residents forced a special election in March under the “home rule” provision of the state constitution. The county argued that Sweatt should not have allowed the election.

In the opinion, Justice Carla Wong McMillan wrote that Sweatt acted appropriately when he granted the election.

“Judge Sweatt acted within the probate court’s subject-matter jurisdiction and the authority granted under the home rule paragraph in calling for the referendum,” she wrote.

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.

Jim Goodman, a Camden County resident who sued to stop the county from purchasing the land and now serves as a county commissioner, said he was elated by the Supreme Court’s decision.

“You should have been able to hear the yelling and shouting from Camden County this morning, from myself and other people,” he said. “I think we sent a message to the county attorney not to sue the citizens of the county or its own probate judge.”

After years of delays, county officials in late 2021 secured a permit from the FAA 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 2022 to trigger the special election. Opponents of the purchase argued that they don’t think the county should buy potentially contaminated land.

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

Goodman said after years of pushback from property owners, residents and environmentalists he thinks the spaceport issue has finally been settled.

“I don’t think the county can go anywhere else,” he said. “I don’t know how the county could proceed from this point.”