SpaceX Tells Boca Chica Residents: Sell Now or Else!

Elon Musk (center) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry break ground on a new launch complex. (Credit: Texas Governor’s Office)

Vice reports that SpaceX gave a Friday deadline for two Boca Chica Village homeowners to sell their homes or Elon Musk’s launch provider would pursue “alternate approaches” to get them to vacate the settlement near the company’s south Texas spaceport.

In an email obtained by VICE, David Finlay, SpaceX’s Senior Director of Finance, told Boca Chica Village residents that this would be SpaceX’s final and best offer and threatened the company would need to pursue alternate means to obtain the homes if the people of Boca Chica Village turned down the money….

“As we have discussed, as the scale and frequency of spaceflight activities at the site continue to accelerate, your property will frequently fall within established hazard zones in which no civilians will be permitted to remain, in order to comply with all federal and other public safety regulations. This email therefore represents SpaceX’s best and final purchase offer.”

Finlays email gave a hard deadline for the residents of Boca Chica Village to sell their homes. “The offer will expire on October 2, 2020,” the email said. “Please be advised that should this offer expire, SpaceX may need to pursue alternative approaches to ensuring that launch operations within the State designated South Texas Spaceport at Boca Chica Beach can be conducted within all necessary public safety requirements.”

The residents said they were adament about not accepting the offers. Most residents of the small village have already sold out to SpaceX. The residents who remain say the offers would not allow them to purchase similar homes close to the shoreline.

The letter doesn’t explicitly say so, but the most likely alternate means would be to have the government expropriate the properties through eminent domain to provide a safe zone for SpaceX’s state-designated spaceport. That process would involve condemning the properties.

The homeowners would be compensated. However, the amount would likely be less than what SpaceX has offered. The company has said their offers to Boca Chica residents have been three time the appraised values of the homes, which would be about $150,000.

Homeowners say they are getting zero support from local officials, who are more concerned with the jobs and economic impacts of SpaceX’s operations than their rights as homeowners.

An interesting is is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision to approve a spaceport less than two miles from a residential area. SpaceX’s plan was to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters from the site, which is just north of the Mexican border.

The facility is now being used to test much larger Starship and Super Heavy boosters that could launch from Boca Chica. The story says the FAA has now determined the village is not safe for human habitation.

SpaceX has warned residents to move outside prior to tests so they do not get hit with flying glass from broken windows in the event of an explosion. The company has also recommended residents leave the area before tests, which are conducted at all hours of the day and night.

Residents who remain in the village are skeptical of safety claims. They note that SpaceX has advertised the position of a development manager to build its own resort adjacent to the spaceport.

“Boca Chica Village is our latest launch site dedicated to Starship, our next generation launch vehicle. SpaceX is committed to developing this town into a 21st century Spaceport. We are looking for a talented Resort Development Manager to oversee the development of SpaceX’s first resort from inception to completion,” SpaceX said in its job advertisement.

The testing of Starship and Super Heavy represent a significant change from what the FAA originally approved. The FAA has ordered an environmental assessment (EA) of the spaceport’s impact on the surrounding area, which includes sensitive wetlands.

Environmental groups, however, believe the review being conducted is insufficient given the scale of what SpaceX is doing at the coastal site. The Brownsville Herald reports:

Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and the main drafter of the July 3 letter to the FAA, told The Brownsville Herald that an EA is insufficient considering the magnitude of SpaceX’s impact and that SpaceX should perform the more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) instead. Further, it’s not up to SpaceX to decide which type of review to conduct, as the FAA contends, but rather the agency itself, Chapman said.

The July 3 letter to the FAA was signed by Chapman and representatives of the environmental groups Save RGV, Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Defenders of Wildlife, Frontera Audubon Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club Group. It urged the FAA to “develop a new or supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for SpaceX’s current and planned actions at their Boca Chica site.”

The interest part is the claim that the FAA has allowed SpaceX to decide what type of environmental review to conduct.

Chapman wrote back to the FAA in response to the agency’s July 17 letter and argued that it is the FAA, not the applicant [SpaceX], who decides whether to pursue an EA or an EIS. He quoted an FAA policy that states: “Once the FAA determines that NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] applies to a proposed action, it needs to decide on the appropriate level of review.” The three levels of NEPA review are a Categorical Exclusion, an EA or an EIS, according to the policy.

Under an EA, the review could bypass any public comment.

“The other thing is that with an EIS public participation is mandatory,” Chapman said. “There will be a public hearing and there will be a public comment period. With an EA, that’s all optional. If the agency wants to they can open it up to public comment or have a public meeting, but they don’t have to. There’s no law that says that that’s required. This needs public participation.”