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SpaceX Squares Off Against Homeowners Near Texas Launch Facility


SpaceX is one of the giants of space exploration, known for innovative rocket designs and relatively inexpensive satellite launches. Now it's dealing with something more down to earth - neighborhood politics. A couple dozen homes have been deemed too close to SpaceX's launch facility in South Texas, and some of the homeowners do not want to leave. Paul Flahive of Texas Public Radio reports.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: When SpaceX tested its new Starhopper rocket last month, the test vehicle rose about 500 feet and then landed safely. Just 2 miles away, there are about 30 homes in Boca Chica Village. Before the test, residents were warned their windows could shatter if something went wrong. These homes are built near the beach and have a median value of about $30,000.

Many residents split time between here and up north. It's rural and peaceful. A coyote wanders past Gale McConnaughey’s small house.

GALE MCCONNAUGHEY: I've said all along that we're, you know, too close to things. And eventually they're going to want everybody gone, which now it's come down to that.

FLAHIVE: SpaceX built its launch pad in 2016 and now wants to purchase these homes. In a letter to owners, it says it made the offer because of the increased disruption to residents and to ensure compliance with public health and safety guidelines. SpaceX offered three times the value set by an appraiser. The offer was non-negotiable, only good for two weeks and expires today.

MCCONNAUGHEY: I mean, where else can we go that we would have what we used to have here for the same money that we're getting for the house?

FLAHIVE: The retired autoworker has stayed here 13 winters with his wife Mary and told SpaceX they would not have an answer that soon. Most people wouldn't, says Jim Bradbury, a lawyer dealing with cases like this in Texas.

JIM BRADBURY: When you get to talking about, you know, purchasing somebody's house sort of under a kind of an aggressive time frame and no negotiation - at least what this letter says - that's really unusual. Frankly, I'm kind of surprised to see that.

FLAHIVE: Many residents have been excited to witness space history being made in their back yard, but some are upset by the increased heavy truck traffic and repeated road closures.

CHERYL STEVENS: They basically just handed a state park, a public beach, you know, whatever over to SpaceX.

FLAHIVE: Cheryl Stevens often rents out her home here. She's no SpaceX fan and opposed the project from the beginning.

STEVENS: I am not at all interested in selling.

FLAHIVE: Stevens and others worry about the state taking their property anyway through eminent domain. She says, after all, Texas and SpaceX have invested millions in the project. Nick Serafy runs the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corporation. He hopes SpaceX and the homeowners can reach an agreement.

NICK SERAFY: I am hopeful that they will be able to secure the properties and just continue. I don't know what the possible negative impact might be. But they decided to acquire them for a reason.

FLAHIVE: Serafy doesn't want to miss out on the biggest deal the area's seen since NAFTA. SpaceX hasn't talked to him about eminent domain. County officials didn't respond to requests for comment. And SpaceX declined an interview. It's likely to come up on Saturday, when SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will travel to Texas to give an update on the spacecraft he hopes will one day take the company to Mars, a mammoth effort that might prove easier than sorting out what to do about a tiny strip of homes on the southern border.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive in Brownsville, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paul Flahive