SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Georgia county officials Wednesday blamed a “bare minority" for forcing a referendum in which voters defeated plans to buy land for a commercial rocket launch pad by a margin of nearly 3-to-1.
Commissioners in coastal Camden County said they were weighing options the day after an overwhelming majority of voters in a special election supported halting efforts to develop a spaceport for sending satellites into space. The county at the Georgia-Florida line has spent the past decade and $10.3 million pursuing the project.
“Camden County is assessing the results of last night’s outcome on the future of Spaceport Camden and is working to determine the best way to preserve taxpayers’ investment," commissioners said in a statement Wednesday.
Commissioners gave no indication they plan to abandon their pursuit of a spaceport despite unofficial returns showing 72% of voters opposed buying 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) for the launch pad and related facilities. The county elections board said 17% of registered voters cast ballots.
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. An emergency motion by the county seeking to halt certification of the vote until the legal case gets decided was pending Wednesday before the Georgia Supreme Court.
“The ability of a bare minority of registered voters to trigger a referendum election is among the key issues" for the courts to decide, the commissioners' statement said.
Camden County officials say 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.
Opponents say the project poses environmental and safety risks and there's no guarantee the millions of dollars being spent will pay off once it's constructed. The National Park Service and other critics have said rockets exploding soon 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.
County officials say chances of anyone getting hurt or killed during a launch are no greater than odds of being struck by lightning.
After years of study and review, the FAA 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 the purchasing property, a judge ordered that the land deal be put before voters. Opponents of the project forced the referendum by gathering more 3,500 petition signatures.
Steve Weinkle, a Camden County resident who organized the petition drive, said commissioners seem determined to try to thwart the will of voters while "committing political suicide in the process.”
Weinkle said he's so angry that he signed up Wednesday for this year's election to challenge Commissioner Chuck Clark, whose district includes the proposed spaceport property. Another spaceport critic, St. Marys City Councilman James Goodman, said he's decided to run against Commission Chairman Gary Blount.
“Honor the vote," Weinkle said. “If it had turned against us last night for any reason, we would have said, `We will honor the wishes of the people.'"
Weinkle and another spaceport critic, James Goodman, said they plan to hold commissioners accountable for continuing to pursue the project. Both men said they will challenge incumbent commissioners who are up for reelection this fall.
Barring intervention by the courts, the referendum results are expected to be certified by Friday, said Shannon Nettles, Camden County's elections supervisor.
In addition to the court challenge, spaceport opponents suspect Camden County officials are considering another way to bypass the referendum results.
Last Friday, commissioners called a special meeting to name board members to the Camden Spaceport Authority. The authority was created in 2019 by Georgia lawmakers. The state law authorizing the spaceport authority gives it the power to purchase property.
Steve Howard, Camden County's government administrator, declined to comment Monday when asked whether commissioners intend for the spaceport authority to buy land for the project if the referendum resulted in commissioners themselves being prohibited.