By Carol Vaughn —
The Accomack County Board of Supervisors after public hearings Wednesday unanimously approved rezoning 28 acres on Wallops Island Road from agricultural to industrial use, as well as two conditional use permits required for a planned rocket production and testing facility.
“This is huge. … This puts Accomack County, Wallops Island, NASA, Virginia Space in the world view,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Wolff, who made all three motions for approval.
There were no speakers from the public at the hearings.
“This is really a significant moment for this county,” said Rich Morrison, Accomack County deputy county administrator of building, planning, and economic evelopment.
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, also called Virginia Space, purchased the property from TWD, LLC, a Maryland company, for $550,000 in April, with plans to demolish existing poultry houses and to construct a building between 100,000 and 140,000 square feet, along with parking and other amenities.
The property is adjacent to NASA-owned Wallops Island.
The two conditional use permits are required because the development will encompass more than 10 acres and hazardous materials will be stored on the site.
The rezoning and permits “are critical pieces to put VCSFA in a competitive position to recruit and attract Rocket Lab’s manufacturing component to Accomack County and the Commonwealth,” according to a memorandum included in the board meeting packet.
Virginia Space is working with Rocket Lab to support the company’s Neutron rocket, which will be 148 feet tall and around 16 feet in diameter — much larger than the company’s Electron rocket.
The company previously announced both rockets will launch from Wallops Island’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.
The building on the Wallops Island Road property would be for production of the Neutron, according to the memo, which went on to say, “Buildings and facilities are needed at the Wallops Island Road site, even if the manufacturing of the Neutron rocket does not occur on (the) property.”
A building was constructed in Wallops Research Park recently to support Rocket Lab’s smaller Electron rocket.
Competition is keen to be the site where the Neutron is manufactured, according to outgoing Virginia Space chief executive officer Dale Nash.
“This is a key part, this rezoning, the purchasing of the chicken farm that we are going to turn into a rocket ranch — that is all key into the investment that will be made in the state” to help attract the company to build the rocket in Accomack County, according to Nash.
Manufacturing the rocket “right outside the gate” of the spaceport has advantages, Nash said, including the ability to build a bigger rocket, lower costs for logistics, and the ability to move the rocket “directly from the rocket ranch” to the launch pad, with very little or no public roadway involved.
If Rocket Lab chooses to manufacture the rocket in Accomack, it will result in an estimated 250 fulltime jobs, Nash said, noting the company “is second only to SpaceX in the number of launches that they have put up.”
“This is 250 jobs, high-paying jobs,” just with Rocket Lab, in addition to other related jobs that likely would result, he said.
“A lot of them, we hope, will be homegrown here,” Nash said, noting the spaceport has 11 interns this summer, in an organization of only 80 employees. Around 25% to 30% of employees came through the internship program in partnership with Eastern Shore Community College, Old Dominion University, and other institutions.
The expected economic impact of the Neutron is greater “than everything we’ve done to date in 25 years” of the spaceport’s development, which amounts to around a quarter of a billion dollars invested by the state, he said.
The Neutron, planned to carry cargo, will be built to also meet the stricter specifications required for human spaceflight, according to Nash.
Rocket Lab, on the same day the company announced plans for the Neutron rocket, also announced it was going public through an acquisition by special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) Vector Acquisition Corp., according to Nash.
“Rocket Lab’s decision to launch both the Electron and Neutron rocket from Wallops is clear evidence that efforts by countless people and numerous federal, state, and local agencies, spanning decades, is paying off. The potential addition of aerospace manufacturing at or near Wallops Island is a major economic boost for the county,” the memo states.
Staff has been in “close contact” with Virginia Space and the Virginia Economic Development Partnership to develop an incentive package for Rocket Lab, according to the memo.
Virginia Space likely would own the building and Rocket Lab would have a long-term lease, according to Nash.
“We are right at the point where the state is making the pitch to Rocket Lab,” Nash said.
“We are now being seen as an operational spaceport and that’s where we want to be,” said retired Major Gen. Ted Mercer, Virginia Space’s incoming CEO.