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Technology & Entrepreneurship

SpaceX Wants To Buy Homes In Boca Chica Village

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Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
View of pieces of SpaceX a Starship prototype in pieces at facility adjacent to Boca Chica village.

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 purchase more than a couple dozen 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. It was 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.

With the launch, the company validated its effort to use its Raptor engines for future ships. But that test cost the company, too. 

The federal government asked SpaceX to increase its liability insurance to $100 million, 33 times higher than previous tests.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bYb3bfA6_sQ

One reason for that could be Boca Chica Village, a group of 30 aging houses less than two miles away. The houses are so close, the company sent warning letters saying homeowners should be 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 prior to those months. The median home value is around $30,000. The hamlet, 30 minutes east of Brownsville, 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, residents said.

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Gale McConnauhey says he will wait and see what SpaceX does.

Gale McConnaughey watched a coyote wander past his small house. 

“I’ve said all along that we’re too close to things and that eventually (SpaceX) they’re gonna want everybody gone which now it’s come down to that,” he said.

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

Boca Chica Village Offer Letter by Texas Public Radio on Scribd

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

“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 asked, swatting mosquitoes away as he spoke. “Fishing, walk on the beach anytime you want, five minutes and we’re down there.”

The retired auto worker lives most summers in upper Michigan. He has stayed here 12 winters with his wife Mary, and he told SpaceX they would not have an answer as soon as Thursday. 

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio

Most people wouldn’t. 

“When you get to talking about purchasing somebody’s house sort of under 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,” said Jim Bradbury, a property rights lawyer. 

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. 

Many residents have been excited to witness history being made in their backyard. Some have publicly documented the process online. SpaceX said in its letter it would offer VIP access to events for those interested in Boca Chica. 

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 it would only occur once a month, but when a launch gets scrubbed it can affect 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,” said Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. on CBS This Morning.  

His office did not respond to calls from TPR, nor did interim county administrator Pete Sepulveda.

“They (government officials) basically just handed a state park, a public beach, you know, whatever over to SpaceX,” said Cheryl Stevens, a Boca Chica Village resident.

Stevens often rents out her home here. She’s no SpaceX fan, and she's opposed the project from the beginning. She isn’t impressed by the buyout offer for her property that the county said was worth $25,000. She said SpaceX offered her around $138,000.

“I am not at all interested in selling,” she said, though she is seeking another appraisal.

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

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
The Starship prototype looms in the background of Boca Chica Village like a 1950s science fiction movie.

She says after all, Texas and SpaceX have invested millions in the project, even changing a law to allow the state highway to be closed for launches. 

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

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

Serafy said he was worried about what happens if they don’t get the properties. The company has a concurrent effort in Florida. What if they just pull out, he asked. 

The Spaceport Development Corporation can ask the county to launch eminent domain.

Serafy said this is the biggest deal the area has seen since NAFTA, and he would personally be willing to explore it.

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

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Credit Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
Fins were recently attached to this prototype. The nose cone would be attached days later.

However, neither SpaceX nor the board of the development corporation have broached it.

Bradbury, the eminent domain lawyer, said state law makes it nearly impossible to claim economic development in those cases, but he couldn’t rule out other reasons they may cite, like spaceport safety.

“It would surprise me if eminent domain were used,” he said.

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.