ATLANTA – The state Supreme Court Thursday heard arguments about the power of local referendums to change county government decisions – such as Camden County’s decision to purchase property to build a long-planned spaceport – under the Georgia Constitution. 

The case pits Camden County voters opposed to the spaceport against their own county government in a case that could influence both the future of the plan and voter oversight of local elected officials in Georgia. 

Camden County leaders have sought to build a spaceport for years, claiming it will bring jobs and economic development to the southeast Georgia region. The county commission agreed to an options contract to purchase the land needed for the space-launch facility from Union Carbide Corporation back in 2015. 

Earlier this year, local opponents successfully led a petition drive asking for a referendum on whether the county’s approval of the land purchase should be repealed. 

In a March special election, about 4,100 people voted against the county’s plan to purchase the land for the spaceport and around 1,600 voted in favor. The county appealed a superior court’s ruling that the referendum could proceed, giving rise to the case the Supreme Court considered Thursday. 

Lawyers for Camden County argued the Georgia Constitution limits the authority of such local referendums. That authority does not extend to allowing voters to veto a county commission’s resolution.   

“[The] referendum in Camden County was a legal nullity … the constitution did not authorize it,” said Pearson Cunningham, one of the attorneys for Camden County.  

In contrast, lawyers for the petitioners who pushed for the referendum argued the vote was valid under a plain reading of the state constitution. 

“The Georgia Constitution says what it says – the right to repeal a county ordinance is explicit… [Camden County] wants the court to determine that the Constitution does not mean what it says,” said Phillip Thompson, one of the lawyers for the people who led the petition drive to hold the referendum. 

Earlier this summer, Union Carbide, the land’s current owner, said it no longer intends to sell to Camden County and noted the referendum results invalidated the previous options contract the county held to purchase the property. Camden County is suing Union Carbide about its decision to back out of the property deal in a separate lawsuit in state courts. 

Camden County has spent $11 million pursuing the proposed commercial spaceport on a 4,000-acre tract of land in southeast Georgia, which officials say will drive economic development in the region. The county commission approved an options contract to purchase the land from current owner Union Carbide Corporation back in 2015.

But opponents say firing small rockets from Spaceport Camden over populated areas of Little Cumberland Island, just off the coast, would pose a major safety risk. Earlier this summer, an independent consultant found the project would pose a low safety risk. 

The National Park Service – which operates the Cumberland Island National Seashore – and environmental organizations worried about the spaceport’s impact on a fragile coastal ecosystem have also expressed reservations about the project. 

The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision within the next six months. 

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.