Space Florida launch at Shiloh: Jobs trump rattlesnakes

OAK HILL -- Last Tuesday, Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana spoke in support of the Space Florida proposal for development of a private space launch facility on NASA-owned land near the abandoned orange grove community of Shiloh just north of the Brevard County line. NASA will postpone any final decision awaiting the results of an environmental impact study of the planned use of 150 acres out of the approximately 150,000 acres in the area shared by the Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge.

This is a shift in the position originally taken by NASA, which had earlier opposed the launch site. In my opinion, this shift was driven in part by the growing surge in popular and political support for the project best exemplified by the favorable resolution passed May 2nd by the Volusia County Council.

The Council’s resolution was strongly opposed by a phalanx of environmental activists who repetitively argued that the launches would endanger every creature that lives in the pristine area, impede traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway which passes through Mosquito Lagoon and reduce jobs for fishing guides.

The Council’s resolution was strongly opposed by a phalanx of environmental activists who repetitively argued that the launches would endanger every creature that lives in the pristine area, impede traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway which passes through Mosquito Lagoon and reduce jobs for fishing guides.

Their idea was that the launch site should be located somewhere else. But the enviros were outnumbered and out-argued by a broad-based group of businessmen, residents of Oak Hill and former residents of Shiloh, Embry-Riddle students, local politicians and representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party.

These far-sighted citizens looked past the ideology to the many benefits which well-implemented development of a launch site would bring to Southeast Volusia, one of the least developed areas of our county. The truth is the environmentalist position was weak and full of holes. First of all, the Shiloh area is not “pristine."

It was a small community of citrus growers and gill-net fishermen who had lived and worked in the area for generations. I remember it well because my great-grandfather owned and lived on an orange grove farther south on Merritt Island until the whole area was taken over by NASA in support of the later-abandoned Nova rocket program. Neither can Mosquito Lagoon be considered “pristine.” At the bottom end of Mosquito Lagoon is found the Haulover Canal, connecting the Mosquito and Indian River lagoons.

It is called “Haulover” for a reason. River traffic was limited to small boats, which could literally be hauled on log rollers across the narrow isthmus which separates the two lagoons. It was the digging of the canal in which made the extension of the Intracoastal Waterway possible in this area. But the very act of digging the canal and connecting the two lagoon ecosystems altered both and eliminated any possibility that either could be classified as “pristine”.

Finally, the very fact that the Intracoastal Waterway runs through the Lagoon, which also supports a lively sport fishing industry, removes it even further from anything approaching the “pristine.” That said, let me be clear about one thing: I love Mosquito Lagoon. When I was a boy in New Smyrna Beach, my father taught me to fish and to hunt ducks on the lagoon. When I was 18, I was a rodman on the survey crew which shot the original topo for the Vertical Assembly Building, cutting line and chaining through the palmettos, swamps, snakes and crocodiles.

I still fish Mosquito Lagoon whenever I can. I love its wildness and care, as only a native can, for its continuing preservation. And it is that lifelong experience which convinces me that the miniscule development proposed by Space Florida can be accommodated and implemented with no significant impact to the area ecosystem.

I still fish Mosquito Lagoon whenever I can. I love its wildness and care, as only a native can, for its continuing preservation. And it is that lifelong experience which convinces me that the miniscule development proposed by Space Florida can be accommodated and implemented with no significant impact to the area ecosystem.

When I was 9, I acquired a stepfather who was part of a shrimping and fishing family in New Smyrna.

In the summers I would “work” on the boats and we often fished out of Canaveral. In those days launches often failed (something which rarely happens anymore) and the failed rockets usually fell in a sea area closed to fishing during the launches. Not only did this fail to have any impact that we could discern on the shrimp harvest, we used to rush into the crash areas as soon as possible after a failure to pick up useful floating debris.

For example, we would often find large floating chunks of a brown bubbly material which could be cut and shaped into floats for net and buoys. We never figured out if the stuff was insulation or solid fuel.

Several weeks before the Council meeting, my younger son and I walked about eight miles along the ranger track behind the dunes south of what we old-timers still call the Old Coast Guard Station at the end of the paved road south of Bethune Beach. We saw three gophers, and innumerable tracks of rabbits, raccoons, mink, birds of all kinds, snake crawls and shed snake skins, the prints of one Florida panther and so many bobcat tracks as to suggest (even though it cannot be the case) that the bobcat is the most common animal in the seashore park.

In addition, as I said, I still frequently fish Mosquito Lagoon and find that the fishing there is as good or better than it was when I was young and that there are more saltwater crocodiles in the Lagoon now than there were in the fifties. On hot summer days I see them frequently on the sand bars at the Clinkers and have seen as many as five at one time working a shoal of mullet.

The point of relating all of this personal and historical information is really very simple: The wildlife in the lagoon and the seashore park have survived and thrived with the very large space center to the immediate south. They would have no trouble at all with a far, far smaller launch site at Shiloh. Animals adapt!

Supporters of the space launch proposal underlined the need for carefully managed development in southeast Volusia to deliver the jobs that the area needs to jumpstart its moribund economy. They pointed out that the actual launch project will create about 100 new jobs. But the refurbishment plant, which will recondition used rocket ships after their return to earth, will employ as many as 2500 men and women, in addition to perhaps 1,000 more temporary construction jobs.

These permanent jobs will not be minimum wage affairs but will be filled by highly-educated, very well paid personnel. A great many of these would be trained and educated at Daytona’s own Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the finest institution of its kind in the world. Embry-Riddle Aueronautical University stands ready to cooperate with whatever private firm operates the launch facility to provide a continuing stream of employees prepared for precisely the work needed at the facility.

In this way, Embry-Riddle graduates would be able to realize the goal articulated by each of the ER students who spoke before the County Council -- to remain in the Volusia area and contribute the knowledge and skills they learned at the Daytona Beach-based college to the betterment of the county. But this does not even begin to address the vast collateral development and job creation to service the workers. This will take place in Southeast Volusia near to the wildlife refuge with the construction of roads, utilities, housing, restaurants, dry cleaners, filling stations, banks and all of the components of the suburban development which that part of the county needs so badly.

And it does not begin to address the creation of the new steams of tax revenue which will flow into the county coffers, easing the growing burden on the second highest taxed county in the state - a burden which has grown so great that the County Council is currently reduced to begging the cities for support to make up the Votran budget shortfall.

In the end the Council voted 6 to 1 for the resolution supporting the project. County Councilwoman Deb Denys, whose district 3 seat includes the proposed launch site, made the most powerful and compelling statement in favor of the project, a clarion call which seemed to draw in any other Council members whose minds were not made up.

The only vote against the Space Florida proposal was cast by Dist. 5 County Councilwoman Pat Northey, who is something of a creature of the environmentalist movement and whose vote was never in doubt. But, extraordinarily, Northey went further than just casting a negative vote.

The only vote against the Space Florida proposal was cast by Dist. 5 County Councilwoman Pat Northey, who is something of a creature of the environmentalist movement and whose vote was never in doubt. But, extraordinarily, Northey went further than just casting a negative vote.

She actually called for locating the launch site in Brevard County, shifting the collateral benefits of development onto our southern neighbors and forcing those Volusians who want to work at the site to endure the time and expense of a two- to three-hour daily commute.

It’s one thing to want to spend money on a series of unconnected bike trails (Northey‘s signature achievement), which are nice to have, even if unnecessary. But placing animals above a living wage for the people of the county she is elected to serve at a time of great economic difficulty and massive continuing unemployment is really beyond the pale.

When the votes were cast, I believe that it was just this sense of over commitment which undid the environmentalists. Their arguments left me with the impression that they are good people whose depth of commitment to their cause is so great that it overwhelms their better judgment. However, the issue is far from over.

In many ways, the vote of the County Council was just a dog and pony show to demonstrate local support in preparation for the battle over the real decisions. These will be taken at the state and federal levels. And of course by the several private companies which are considering using the Shiloh sites for the launching of their space vehicles.

Much will depend upon the environmental impact study. The large majority of Volusians who want this badly-needed flagship development project for our county must leave no stone unturned in our continuing active support.

Remember, there was a time when Florida was the center of "all" commercial space development in the world. Now we control none of it. That must be changed and we can begin to make that change happen right here in Volusia County.

Stanley Escudero
May 18, 2013
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The Guidepost By Stanley Escudero
Stanley Escudero is a retired career diplomat, businessman & native Floridian, who lives in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, with his wife, Jaye. He served as chairman of the Volusia County Republican Executive Committee in 2011-2012. Escudero was appointed to the Daytona State College Board of Trustees in 2015, By Gov. Rick Scott. Escudero, writer of the 'The Guidepost' politcal column since 2010, is a member of the inaugural Class of 2017 Headline Surfer Hall of Fame. All news content copyright-protected intellectual property of NSB News LLC, which may not be duplicated or re-published in whole or in part without advance approval of the publisher. Headline Surfer® is published by award-winning journalist Henry Frederick.