Camden County applies for launch site license

The Camden County Board of Commissioners announced earlier this month that it has submitted its application for a launch site operator license to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The application is the culmination of more than three years of planning and legwork by the county and a bevy of consultants, engineers and scientists who have been tasked with proving that the site would be safe to both the uninvolved public and the environment. 

The jury is still out on that question, but the FAA will eventually make a ruling. What remains certain is that the project has the strong and vocal support of local and state elected officials.

“This is a massive milestone for Camden County,” said County Board Chairman Jimmy Starline. “To the best of our knowledge, no local government has ever accomplished this feat.”

A county news release included statements of support from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, Ga.-1, former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and retired Air Force Major General and Camden County resident Bob Dickman, the former commander of the 45th Space Wing.

On the other side of the issue is a vocal contingent of local citizens who oppose the project due to safety issues, as well as economic ones. They question whether local taxpayers will ever see a return on the millions of dollars that have been spent so far on the spaceport project.

Many of the property owners from Little Cumberland Island don’t see this application as good news.

“It is unfortunate for those of us with homes directly downrange from the proposed spaceport, unfortunate for Camden County taxpayers who have already seen $6 million of our tax dollars wasted, and unfortunate for the FAA who will now be asked to conduct a review of an extremely controversial and unprecedented application to launch rockets directly over a residential community and a national park that is visited by over 60,000 people annually,” said Kevin Lang, an Athens, Ga. attorney whose family owns property on the island.

Lang said the environmental impact statement is not yet final and the FAA will not consider the application until it is. Therefore, he and others feel this is a manufactured public relations stunt designed to rally flagging local support for the project.

“It is reasonable to expect that the environmental review process will take years to resolve, as the draft environmental impact statement received more than 15,000 comments that must be addressed. If they try and shortcut the (National Environmental Policy Act) process, litigation will follow and this will involve more expense to Camden County taxpayers,” Lang added.

John Simpson of Capitol Resources, who was hired to handle public relations for the spaceport, pushed back on that narrative: “Camden County’s submission of the launch site operator license application for Spaceport Camden is a huge milestone. To suggest that submission is a PR stunt because a record of decision on the Spaceport Camden EIS is required before submission ignores the FAA’s regulations and the public presentations the FAA has made to Georgia lawmakers and the public.”

Simpson said the FAA’s commercial space transportation regulations state that the FAA will initially screen an application to determine whether it is complete enough for the FAA to start its review. Typically, he said, the environmental review portion of a license application is considered “complete enough” once an environmental assessment or EIS has been issued for public review.

“Camden draft EIS (was issued) for public review in 2018 and (the FAA) is working to prepare the final EIS. The NEPA process is currently ongoing, and it does not need to be finished in order for Camden County to submit a launch site operator license application,” Simpson said.

He agreed that no decision can be made on the license issue until the NEPA process is complete.

According to an October email update from Stacy Zee of the FAA, the agency received more than 15,500 comments during the scoping period, but all but 500 of those were form letters sent from three different organizations.

“We have been reviewing all comments received on the draft EIS and developing responses to comments as well as updating the EIS in response to comments,” she wrote.

Bayer Crop Science and Union Carbide currently own the properties that would encompass the spaceport and the county has a purchase option agreement in place with Union Carbide.

According to the FAA, “The license would allow the county to offer the commercial space launch site, Spaceport Camden, to commercial launch operators to conduct launches of liquid-fueled, small to medium-large lift-class, orbital and suborbital vertical launch vehicles.

“Operation would include up to 12 vertical launches and up to 12 associated launch vehicle first-stage landings per year. In support of the launches, there would be up to 12 wet dress rehearsals and up to 12 static fire engine tests per year.” The project was promoted on the idea that it would be a public-private partnership but no private investor has been announced. County leaders insist that they must first acquire a launch site operator’s license before any deals can be finalized and announced.

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