SAVANNAH, Ga. -- A Georgia county has filed a lawsuit seeking to force a company to sell land on which the county has long planned to build a launchpad for commercial rockets.
Commissioners in coastal Camden County said in a statement Thursday that Union Carbide Co.'s refusal to sell the 4,000 acre (1,600 hectare) property, if allowed to stand, “will cause the County the loss of the Spaceport Project as well as an enormous financial loss in excess of $11 million.”
County officials have spent that sum over the past decade seeking to license and build Spaceport Camden, a site for launching satellites into space. Opponents say the project would pose safety and environmental risks that outweigh any economic benefits. The county held a referendum in March in which a large majority voted to kill the land deal.
Commissioners opted to disregard the vote, which they contend violated Georgia's constitution. But Union Carbide balked at the county's efforts to move forward with closing on the property. The company said last week that the deal was off because it had been “repudiated” by voters.
The county filed a civil suit Wednesday in Camden County Superior Court in hopes of keeping the spaceport project alive. Commissioners said the company still has a “contractual obligation to sell the property.”
"The County believes that Union Carbide’s real reason for repudiating the contract had nothing to do with the referendum but was instead to allow Union Carbide to make more money on the property than what the County had agreed to pay," the commissioners' statement said. “That is not a legitimate reason for repudiating a contract.”
Union Carbide declined to comment Thursday on the accusations by Camden County. The company had not yet been served with a copy of the lawsuit, said spokesman Tomm Sprick.
The county government in 2015 entered into an option agreement with the company to buy the land once the county obtained a spaceport operator license from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA awarded the license in December. But before county commissioners could close on the land, opponents forced a referendum on the project by gathering more than 3,500 petition signatures. The project was put to a vote in March, and 72% cast ballots to block the deal.
Commissioners have insisted the spaceport project would bring economic growth not just from rocket launches, but also by attracting related industries and tourists to the community of 55,000 people on the Georgia-Florida line.
Opponents say building the spaceport on an industrial plot formerly used to manufacture pesticides and munitions would pose potential hazards.
Critics, including the National Park Service, 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 commissioners hired consultants to study potential threats to the island. Their report concluded that “after routine operational risk mitigations are applied the overall risk for fire to Cumberland Island from a failed rocket launch was found to be so low as to not be credible.”
Meanwhile, county officials are trying to have the referendum declared invalid by the Georgia Supreme Court. Their legal appeal argues that Georgia's constitution doesn’t allow voters to veto government projects such as the spaceport. The court is scheduled to hear the case Aug. 23.