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SpaceX Squares Off Against Homeowners Near South Texas Launch Facility

Components of SpaceX's Starship prototype
Paul Flahive
/
Texas Public Radio
Components of SpaceX's Starship prototype at a facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk will travel to Texas on Saturday to give an update on the rocket he hopes will one day take the company to Mars. But before Mars, the company may have a tougher challenge: Texas homeowners. It wants to buy about 30 houses it now says are too close to its launch pad. 

When SpaceX tested its Starhopper rocket in late August, it saw its test vehicle rise about 500 feet and land safely – a small feat for a company that has resupplied the international space station and launched 60 of its broadband network of thousands of satellites. But still important.

The company validated its effort to use its Raptor engines for future ships, but the test cost the company, too. The federal government asked it to increase its liability insurance to $100 million, 33 times higher than for previous tests.

One reason could be Boca Chica Village, a coastal hamlet about 30 minutes east of the border city of Brownsville – and less than 2 miles from the test site. The 30 houses are so close, the company sent warning letters saying homeowners should go outside when the launch occurs, due to the slight possibility that an accident could shatter their windows. 

The enclave of mostly winter homes is sparsely populated offseason. The median home value is around $30,000. The hamlet trades water infrastructure for a short walk to the beach. The wildlife preserve nearby and the isolation are worth the $15 a month they pay Cameron County to truck in water, said residents.

“I’ve said all along that we’re too close to things, and that eventually [SpaceX is] gonna want everybody gone," resident Gale McConnaughey said, "which now it’s come down to that.

Boca Chica resident Gale McConnaughey sits on a porch
Credit Paul Flahive / Texas Public Radio
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Texas Public Radio
Boca Chica resident Gale McConnaughey says he'll wait and see what SpaceX does.

SpaceX now wants to buy these homes. In a letter to owners, the company said it made the offer because of the increased disruption to residents and to ensure compliance with public health and safety guidelines. 

SpaceX said it offered three times the value an independent appraiser gave it. The offer is nonnegotiable and expires in two weeks.

“I mean where else can we go that we would have what we used to have here for the money we’re getting for the house?” McConnaughey said as he swatted away mosquitoes. “Fishing, walk on the beach anytime you want, five minutes and we’re down there.”

The retired autoworker, who spends most summers in upper Michigan, has stayed here 12 winters with his wife, Mary. He told SpaceX they would not have an answer as soon as Thursday. 

Most people wouldn’t. 

“When you get to talking about purchasing somebody’s house sort of under an aggressive timeframe and no negotiation, at least what this letter says, that’s really unusual," said Jim Bradbuy, a property rights lawyer. "Frankly I’m kind of surprised to see that."

He said in cases like this it’s usually a pasture or a field. When it's homes, he said, it wasn’t uncommon to give people months, if not a year, to make a decision. 

Many residents have been excited to witness history being made in their backyard. Some have taken to publicly documenting the process online. SpaceX said in its letter it would give Boca Chica residents VIP access to these events.

But some residents have been upset by the increased heavy truck traffic. They are also frustrated by closures to State Highway 4 — the sole road in and out — and the closure of the public beach on launch days. They were told initially that would occur only once a month, but when a launch gets scrubbed it can last multiple days. 

“I feel bad for those people, but hopefully they’ll understand and appreciate at the end of the day this was beneficial for the entire area,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said on CBS This Morning.  

His office did not respond to calls from TPR, nor did interim County Administrator Pete Sepulveda.

Government officials "basically just handed a state park, a public beach, you know, whatever over to SpaceX,” said Cheryl Stevens, a Boca Chica resident.

Stevens, who often rents out her home, said she's no SpaceX fan and opposed the project from the beginning.

Stevens and other residents said they were worried about the state taking their property anyway through eminent domain.

Texas and SpaceX have invested millions in the project, she said, even changing a law to allow the state highway to be closed for launches. 

The Starship prototype looms in the distance of Boca Chica Village.
Credit Paul Flahive / Texas Public Radio
/
Texas Public Radio
The Starship prototype looms in the distance of Boca Chica Village.

“I am hopeful they will be able to secure the properties and just continue,” Nick Serafy, volunteer head of the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp., said.

The nonprofit was created to administer state funding to SpaceX and any other space organizations that may crop up. 

Serafy doesn't want the area to miss out on the biggest deal it has seen since NAFTA.

“This is just a completely different ball game," he said. "It’s like the Wright brothers building their first airport."

SpaceX hasn't talked to him about eminent domain. County officials didn't respond to a request for comment, and SpaceX declined an interview.

Some will likely sell outright, but McConnaughey and other residents said they will just have to wait and see what SpaceX does next.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

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