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Georgia Supreme Court spaceport case pits 1st Amendment against county home rule

Georgia’s Supreme Court is set to hear a case next month that First Amendment experts say could create significant hurdles for voters who want to use public initiative to rein in their local elected officials.

It’s the latest installment in Camden County’s long-running effort to build a spaceport on the Georgian coast. The county is challenging a clause in the Georgia Constitution that paved the way for a special election that blocks the purchase of 4,000 acres near the Atlantic Ocean where Camden officials are planning the controversial rocket launch spaceport.

Over a two-year period, Camden residents secured the signatures of more than 10% of registered voters needed to put the referendum on the ballot.

And in the March 8 election, voters rejected a resolution allowing the county to enter into the land deal with Union Carbide Corp., as residents objected to a still-running spaceport tab that now tops $11 million. dollars. Meanwhile, opponents continue to complain about the possibility that rockets launched from the spaceport could explode, raining debris on federally protected areas and 40 private homes on Cumberland Island.

Clare Norins, director of the University of Georgia Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, wrote in a friend of the court brief that the county is unable to provide evidence in support of his view that the county’s authority to conduct business is seriously threatened by giving voters the power of a referendum that allows the public to air their grievances through protected political speech.

Since the majority of county laws that affect residents are passed by the county and other local officials, as opposed to the Georgia General Assembly, the referendum offers residents the opportunity to veto measures such as Camden Spaceport, where many residents felt they were being ignored as county commissioners went on an extended quest to launch rockets off the Georgian coast toward sensitive barrier islands, Norins wrote.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing for August 23 in the case.

“The invalidation of this direct democracy safety valve built into our State Constitution will rob not only the people of Camden County, but the people of Georgia’s 159 counties of their ability to hold their county commissioners accountable more than ‘once every four years,’ the legal brief said. “Although county commissioners are few in number, they wield enormous power to legislatively affect the lives of their constituents.”

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Camden officials’ foray into commercial space exploration began in 2014 and five years later the Federal Aviation Administration granted the spaceport operator license for up to 12 launches per year. The license is dependent on the county closing on lands held by Union Carbide. Each individual launch would require state and federal regulatory approval.

As legal battles unfold, county officials ‌seek‌ ‌investors‌ and attract business for a project they believe will be an economic driver for the region.

The Association County Commissioners of Georgia sides with Camden officials, who are members of the lobbying organization. The organization says the public initiative clause was never intended to apply to land deals.

Camden argues that the state constitution ‌prohibits residents from revoking county resolutions. Instead, county attorneys say, the real estate contract falls under the state autonomy provision, which grants counties the power to enact local laws.

In a related case from 2020, Glynn County was successfully blocked two state senate bills that called for a special election to abolish the county police department and return control to the‌ ‌‌ ‌sheriff.

If the state high court rules against the county, ‌a recurring cycle of petitions could be triggered against county and city governments, which would be ‌‌‌contrary to the state constitution which establishes the ground rules of government. , lawyers for the counties association wrote on May 16.

“Such an outcome would have a dramatic impact on the 159 county members of the ACCG, both operationally and cost-wise: counties would have to provide funding for staff, equipment and venues to holding this new class of county-wide special elections.”

The county association and Camden officials also cite a 1998 state case in which the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against a group of residents and business owners who were trying to stop city leaders from Claxton, in southern Georgia, to close the railroad crossings. They are asking the judges hearing the Camden case to follow suit in the Kemp v. City of Claxton case by giving the constitutional county domicile rule the same weight as the statutory municipal domicile rule.

“The feasibility of Kemp’s reasoning is even more evident in the light of our system of government: if citizens are dissatisfied with the measures taken by their elected, they can (and often find) their remedy by voting those elected removed from office,” the county association’s legal argument reads.

The Supreme Court case isn’t the only legal tangle holding up the planned spaceport. The Southern Environmental Law Center, One Hundred Miles, and the National Parks Conservation Association are suing the Federal Aviation Administration in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In a lawsuit filed in May, environmental groups say the agency has failed to adequately study the potential environmental damage that approved small rockets could cause since ‌spaceport’s previous plans envisioned SpaceX-sized launches.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera