COMMENTARY: Will Elon Musk’s SpaceX force South Texans from their homes?

Construction crews work on Space's Launch Pad Thursday, near Boca Chica Beach. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

By ERIC OPIELA, Special to the Star

When the twenty or so residents of Boca Chica Village moved into their homes off the coast of southern Texas, they expected to live out their retirement in peace. A quiet village of only a handful of people, Boca Chica Village was the perfect “forever home,” a place that retirees could enjoy their sunset years without commotion or worry. At least, that was the case, until SpaceX came to town.

In 2014, SpaceX—Elon Musk’s private rocket company—obtained approval to build a commercial spaceport in the Boca Chica Village area. And less than a stone’s throw away from the small retiree village, Musk began construction. One can imagine that for the residents, the arrival of SpaceX was initially an exciting prospect—a window into the future of technology and the human race. But fast-forwarding to 2019, many are now singing an entirely different tune.

Following SpaceX’s arrival, the inhabitants of Boca Chica Village have endured a barrage of frustrating setbacks. In July 2019, SpaceX’s experimental rocket caused a brushfire, scorching approximately 100 acres of surrounding land. Then, in August, residents were subjected to a “potential risk to health and safety,” as police warned that a SpaceX launch malfunction could result in an “overpressure event” strong enough to break windows.

SpaceX specifically presented to the Federal Aviation Administration that they would take steps to prevent wildfires and encourage residents to remain indoors. But now, even before a launch, a wildfire has occurred, and SpaceX is warning residents that an overpressure event makes remaining indoors unsafe—in contradiction of the terms of their launch permit.

SpaceX’s presence has undoubtedly disrupted life everyday life for the residents of Boca Chica Village. Now, SpaceX is looking to buy the entire town out from under them.

On September 18, CBS reported that SpaceX had sent letters to the residents of Boca Chica Village, offering to purchase their homes from them for three times its fair market value. The company also offered to supply a bevy of other perks to potential sellers.

It’s a generous offer, indeed. But it’s hard to put a price on the memories that reside in a home. It’s even harder to watch a company like SpaceX that has caused so much distress on the city bulldoze those memories to make more room for their facilities. It’s no surprise, then, that at least 10 property owners have said they plan to reject the deal.

What happens, though, when the homeowners decline to sell? The land is obviously something Elon Musk actively wants to acquire. He’s used to getting what he wants, and through the use of eminent domain, he can get exactly that.

It’s entirely possible that the company, working through the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corporation, could make an eminent domain claim over the entire village. With the help of a compliant judge and a plausible justification to protect “public health and safety,” Musk could effectively take the land by force. Since the Spaceport Development Corporation is a governmental body with the power of eminent domain, it could compel the residents of Boca Chica to sell their homes—so long as it provides them with “just compensation.”

Due to Texas’ weak private property protections against lowball offers, residents could be compensated at only a fraction of what they were offered in this September’s letters from SpaceX. For the last three legislative sessions, South Texans’ Property Rights Association, along with other landowner groups, have fought to strengthen Texans’ protections against the confiscation of their private property by governmental bodies and private corporations who have the power of eminent domain.

But would the SpaceX CEO actually use eminent domain to secure the property for his own use? While we can’t be certain, we know Musk and SpaceX aren’t above using government compulsion to get what they want. After all, the top elected official in Cameron County— Judge Eddie Trevino Jr.— has previously expressed his wholehearted support of SpaceX. This fact should serve as a warning for the residents of Boca Chica Village—Musk isn’t afraid to ask “big brother” for backup.

Local officials must step up to stop this miscarriage of justice from occurring. People have a right to the land they legally own, and our elected representatives must prevent companies like SpaceX from running roughshod over the rights of fellow Texans. Otherwise, small villages like Boca Chica will suffer.

Eric Opiela is vice chair-elect of South Texans’ Property Rights Association and chairs its eminent domain committee. Learn more at // www.stpra.org.