Camden County, Georgia, has spent millions toward a hopeful commercial spaceport project. The county has applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for a launch operator’s license and now is asking the state government to create an authority.
The county commission voted unanimously to do so Tuesday evening, despite much public comment in opposition. It’s now up to the county’s local delegation to approve and carry the legislation through the General Assembly.
An authority is basically a quasi-governmental structure that can sign contracts, do business and issue revenue bonds without a referendum.
Camden County Attorney John Myers said it’s a necessary step in the spaceport process: “This is merely foundational work that we have to do. If we’re going to run a spaceport, we need to be able to have a vehicle to do so.”
County officials say a spaceport is a promising new economic development venture, but opponents disagree, arguing it’s not a reliable enough industry to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on.
And some, like Kevin Lang, are concerned that the authority sidesteps the voters.
“The voters of Camden County, in that scenario, will never have an opportunity to vote on the incurrence of that debt.”
Lang, vice president of the Little Cumberland Island Homeowners Association, testified at the second of two public hearings the county held on the issue Tuesday. Little Cumberland Island sits underneath the proposed rocket launch trajectories from the proposed launch site.
The hearings were announced last Friday.
“I can’t help but believe with the short notice like this that you’re ready to make a vote on this big decision,” said Susan Downs, a resident of Woodbine, at the hearing.
Myers said there are two key reasons for an authority. One of which involves doing business and signing contracts.
“Typically, counties and municipalities can only enter into one-year contracts. They can’t bind future commissions so contracts have to be renewed annually. For an authority, you can enter into a longer-term contract,” he said.
The authority would also be able to purchase land, like the land the county plans to purchase should it get an operator’s license.
Additionally, Myers said, it provides a new financing avenue, which is what much of the public comment opposed. As opposed to general obligation bonds that require a “time-consuming” public referendum, he said, “authorities can issue revenue bonds, and those revenue bonds merely have to be validated by a superior court judge. And the public can participate in that process.”
Lewis Worthing is a resident of Woodbine who testified at one of the Tuesday hearings.
“You don’t have a valid environmental impact statement, and you don’t have a valid launch license. All you’re doing is spending money,” he said, challenging the need for an authority. “You’re spending [money] on what? You want another bureaucracy?”
Rep. Steven Sainz replaced Jason Spencer as the state representative for much of Camden County. Spencer was a strong proponent of the project. Sainz said he’s taking a different approach.
“I’m not going to sell the project nor detract from that project. I want to make sure that’s a conversation between their local elected officials down in Camden and the citizens there.”
He has some questions about the authority idea before approving it.
“I want to see, if they’re looking to utilize it for a bonding avenue, what is that private enterprise portion to ensure it’s being done in a fiscally responsible way, that there’s a private [funding] source when they eventually want to go to bonding.”
He said he’s heard from folks for it and against it, but the spaceport is the No. 1 item he’s gotten calls about this session. Sainz commends the county for looking for “innovative ways to spur our economy in South Georgia, whether this be something that goes to market or it be other items.”
“The spaceport is going to put generational debt on Camden County. The spaceport authority is not a good investment for the citizens of Camden County, no matter what you’ve been told,” said Steve Weinkle at a Tuesday hearing before the county commission. He’s a resident of Harriets Bluff and outspoken spaceport critic.
“Everything about this spaceport has been secretive,” he said.
He’s referring to two lawsuits that have been filed against the FAA and Camden County’s spaceport consultant, both related to alleged open records request violations.