Georgia Today: Neighbors of proposed $5 billion Rivian plant say 'Not in our backyard'
Residents near the site of the proposed $5 billion Rivian Automotive electric vehicle factory want answers about the facility’s potential impacts on their rural community. The plant is slated to be built on a 2,000-acre site that straddles Morgan and Walton counties.
[News tape] Montage of speakers at public meeting of the The Joint Development Authority: "I lived in DeKalb County. I've lived in Henry County. And we've been running away from rampant overdevelopment. It's going to happen here, folks. It will be destroyed, just like Doraville, Chamblee and the rest." "Should Rutledge and rural residents be asked to sacrifice the life they love, unwillingly, for the greater economic good? Jesus didn't go to the cross unwillingly. Should Rutledge?" "Roaches come out in the dark and then when you turn the light on, they all run and hide. And I just don't want to see y'all be roaches. So come out and let us see what's going on."
Steve Fennessy: These are the voices of just some of the residents who spoke out this week against a new automobile factory that's slated to go up in a rural area east of Atlanta. Before Christmas, Gov. Brian Kemp announced a $5 billion development deal with electric vehicle maker Rivian Automotive.
Brian Kemp: And as of today, Georgia's success story has a new chapter: The single largest economic development project in state history.
Steve Fennessy: So why do so many residents near the Rivian site, which is located just off I-20 about an hour east of Atlanta, oppose it? This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy and I'm joined by Tia Lynn Ivey. She's news editor at the Morgan County Citizen newspaper, and she's reported on the Rivian project and the backlash to it from the beginning. Welcome, Tia.
Tia Ivey: Hello.
Steve Fennessy: So Tia, tell us about this paper you work for, the Morgan County Citizen.
Tia Ivey: We are a historic community newspaper. The Morgan County Citizen has been around in some way, shape or form since the late 1800s.
Steve Fennessy: When did you first start hearing rumors about something big happening there from an economic development perspective? What happened?
Tia Ivey: Well, you know, it all started with two little old ladies looking through the archives. And they called the newspaper to tip us off that Rutledge property owners had been approached for their land, but nobody had concrete details. So that was in early November we started hearing those rumors.
Steve Fennessy: When we talk about the rumors you heard, you getting calls from residents saying they've been approached about selling their land, who were they saying was making that request of them?
Tia Ivey: The rumors were that these Joint Development Authority, known as the JDA, were approaching landowners and offering them top dollar. The JDA is the Joint Development Authority. It's a four-county board between Morgan, Jasper, Walton and Newton counties, and they're tasked with the development of Stanton Springs. Their stated goal has always been recruiting high-tech bio industries to the region to create high-paying jobs and more tax revenue for the four counties. You know how it works. It's an eight-member board and there's two members from every county.
Steve Fennessy: You mentioned the Stanton Springs economic development area. So the property that the JDA is looking to acquire — is that to add on to the Stanton Springs or is that something that's separate?
Tia Ivey: It is an expansion of Stanton Springs. Stanton Springs originally was a 1,600-acre plot of land earmarked for industrial development for the past 20 years. Just in the summer of 2021, the JDA purchased new land: 665 acres.
Steve Fennessy: And Rutledge itself within Morgan County has just under 1,000 people. How far is Rutledge from where the Rivian plant would be?
Tia Ivey: It will sprawl to three miles from the heart of downtown Rutledge, but it's not far from the original Stanton Springs.
Brian Kemp: This pivotal announcement represents a lot for our state: $5 billion of economic investment, 7,500 jobs for hardworking Georgians. It means new electric vehicles will be made right here in the Peach State.
Steve Fennessy: What Gov. Kemp announced is so massive in scale. We're talking about 20 million square feet of factory floor.
Tia Ivey: The sheer size of this plant scares people, especially from a small town. When you're talking about 20 million square feet, that is hard to visualize. Twenty million square feet is equivalent to 347 football fields. It's three times larger than Disneyland, and it's four times larger than Vatican City. That is going to be built, mainly, atop of historic farmland. This is 20 times larger than one of the other biggest developments Morgan County is familiar with.
[News tape] WSB: Plans put the new Rivian Electric Vehicle Assembly Plant on a 2,000-acre site along I-20, east of Atlanta. Rivian promises to bring in thousands of new jobs, becoming one of Georgia's largest-ever economic projects.
[News tape] WSB: Brian Kemp: And it's much going to be like KIA has transformed West Point and like the SK Innovations's really transforming Commerce, Ga., and Jackson County.
Steve Fennessy: So I hear all these things and I think, well, this is just like Gov. Kemp says, a real economic coup for the state of Georgia. But the people in your neck of the woods have another opinion, right?
Tia Ivey: Some of the concerns obviously from residents — pretty basic — increase in traffic on the interchange through their city, noise pollution, light pollution. They like their starry nights out there. The biggest environmental concern is the impact this plant could have on groundwater. Many Rutledge residents rely on well water. They're afraid that this big company is going to come through and chemicals and waste is going to seep into the groundwater and poison their wells. That's the concern I hear over and over again. Now Rivian and the JDA have pledged that they're doing all kinds of environmental studies, impact studies that they're going to have systems in place to protect the water. But the details of that haven't been released and those studies haven't been completed, and zoning is up for a vote before those studies are going to be completed, let alone released to the public. If approved, Rivian will have to still follow Morgan County and Walton County's zoning standards, including water protection, what steps they have to take to protect drinking water and groundwater and the recharging areas and wetlands and etc., etc.
[News tape] WSB: Residents here still want answers, especially what impact the huge plant could have on groundwater since so many of them get their drinking water from wells.
[News tape] WSB: "My son-in-law and my daughter, they can't afford to have their well tested every month to make sure that it's still safe water for them to drink."
Tia Ivey: Yeah, they'll be asked to protect it. But is it enforceable? Who's going to be keeping tabs on them? They kind of want to see it done before any approval is given. Another major concern is a domino effect of development. You have this huge plant that's going to bring 7,500 jobs. Well, where are those people going to live? Restaurants, shopping centers, hotels. They don't want to see Morgan County become, you know, metro Atlanta.
[News tape]: I paid a lot of money for our house and our property in Rutledge just because it was where I wanted to be and probably wanted to spend the rest of my life. This is not what I moved to Rutledge for. This is not what I moved to Morgan County for.
Steve Fennessy: So the rural aspect of life in Morgan County is incredibly important to the people who live there.
Tia Ivey: Yes, they have fought developments on a much smaller scale. For years I've worked here, for almost a decade, and we've seen housing developments opposed, a new hospital opposed, new schools — all kinds of things that people feel are going to threaten the rural lifestyle that so many here treasure.
Steve Fennessy: Well, what was the first sign that you saw that gave you a glimpse at what the intensity of the opposition was going to be there?
Tia Ivey: The first hint I got of the really angry opposition was when a dozen Rutledge residents showed up at a JDA meeting sort of inquiring about "What options do we have? How can we stop this plant or, you know, alter the plans for this plant?" And one economic developer was very blunt with them: he said "This ship has sailed. The deal is done," and I think that was really the cherry on top that sort of ignited this feeling that they were pushed aside. They had no input in this plant, no public involvement. The lack of transparency, the lack of information. They just felt left out of the process. So when I saw that, I thought, "These people are going to get organized." And they did.
Steve Fennessy: Well, that's the nature of these economic development deals, right? I mean, they're they're conducted in utmost secrecy under the banner of, well, you know, "We can't tell you who we're talking to because it's a competitive issue with the companies we're talking with." And then the people who it most affects locally don't really hear much about it until it's a done deal, right?
Tia Ivey: Exactly. And that's sort of why this is a little different than the original Stanton Springs. Because yes, with the other economic development projects, nobody knew what they were until it was a done deal. But they knew the area. They knew that plot of land. That plot of land was earmarked for industrial development for 20 years. This? People did not see coming.
[News tape]: We're up here talking to a wall because we don't feel like we're getting any answers from any of you folks, OK? You know, the lack of transparency in this thing — you should all be ashamed of yourselves. It's just — it's — it's just really bad.
Steve Fennessy: Up next, environmental and traffic concerns aren't all that's got local residents so upset. They claim a former Morgan County economic development official put his family's profit over the well-being of the community. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Tia Lynn Ivey, news editor at the Morgan County Citizen newspaper. So apart from the objections they have from a traffic standpoint, from a pollution and water standpoint, there are also people who are opposed to this making allegations basically of cronyism, right? About the acquisition of the land. So what is that all about?
Tia Ivey: So basically, you have — the JDA was chaired by Alan Verner, who is one of the owners of Verner Family Farms, which is historic farmland, about 750 acres, green pastures, a cow farm for five generations. He was the chairman up until August 2021. He stepped down, he retired and then it came to light that he, in fact, and his family sold the historic Verner family farmland to make way for Rivian. And this did not sit well with Rutledge residents. They believed that Alan Verner used his inside position for personal profit and sold out the city of Rutledge. So Alan Verner, of course, does not frame it that way. He sees it as another step in progress, in bringing high-paying jobs to the area and more tax revenue for the four counties. But the optics don't look great.
[News tape] Speaker at public meeting: We have a county commissioner who was voted to represent his constituents, and to me, he failed his fiduciary responsibility to notify those people of what was going on.
Tia Ivey: But the JDA does defend this; if there's nothing unethical, nothing illegal about it, that Verner recused himself from any decisions being made about Rivian in the JDA. But Rutledge residents aren't buying it.
Steve Fennessy: And how big of a parcel of land did he sell, do you know?
Tia Ivey: Verner Family Farms is about 750 acres I believe in its entirety, but it was split between himself and his siblings. So from what I understand, they all sold. But his portion was about 200 acres.
Steve Fennessy: So his neighbors thinks that he's basically selling out the legacy of that county.
Tia Ivey: None of that has been released because again, this is all under contract and they're under nondisclosure agreements. But we know from the site plan that all of Verner Family Farms is in Rivian's site plan.
Steve Fennessy: And we're talking about an economic development project that would employ something like 7,500 to 10,000 people. So what does their opposition look like?
Tia Ivey: It's an interesting opposition movement because their main Facebook page has the last I looked about 1,200 members, so they're gaining opponents from outside of Rutledge as well. There are some people out in Walton County that are very against this and in other parts of Morgan County who don't want this, either. So the opposition is growing and it's an interesting movement because usually these issues fall along partisan lines in the hyperpartisan divide that we've all become so familiar with in recent years. This sort of has transcended that. I see at these meetings diehard Republicans, diehard Democrats and they're linking arms on this one People are concerned about the Rivian development, what's it going to do to the county and some of the potential risks.
Steve Fennessy: What is their approach to fighting it apart from, you know, showing up at meetings and speaking out in opposition to it?
Tia Ivey: The hope is even if they can't stop it that they can delay it long enough that either Rivian gets tired of the headache and backs out and goes someplace else, or they're hoping the company goes belly up.
Steve Fennessy: It's a company that's that at one point, its market capitalization was bigger even than Ford and GM. It's — it's now — their stock price has since fallen, but I mean, it gives you an idea for a company that's produced just, I think, like a thousand vehicles so far — that's it. I mean, they're on fire.
[News tape] Wall Street Journal: You see, Rivian has received over $10 billion in funding since 2019, and a lot of that has come from Amazon. That's why we saw Bezos driving one on the way to his space launch.
Tia Ivey: That's what people are actually concerned about as well, that it's going to be like a shooting star. They're on fire, but it's going to fizzle out and they're going to be stuck with a half-assembled auto plant in their backyard. They believe Rivian is an unproven company because they're new and they don't know if they want to take the chance on it.
Steve Fennessy: Well, there are still some i's to be dotted and T's to be crossed at a local level, right, when it comes to things like like zoning. But a significant portion of this 2,000 acre parcel is zoned agricultural. That designation, of course, has to be changed to industrial, right? So who controls that outcome?
Tia Ivey: Right now, it's the Walton County commissioners and the Morgan County commissioners. The Morgan County share of land that needs to be rezoned for this project is 850 acres. It's currently zoned as agricultural or residential, and it needs to change to industrial before Rivian can move forward. Walton is the same case. I'm not sure how many acres are out there. But so, Walton County is up first. They review Rivian's rezoning request on Feb. 2 and then the Morgan County Planning Commission will review rezoning for Rivian Feb. 24. And then both county commissioner bodies will render a final vote on the rezoning in early March. Of course, anti-Rivian folks tend to attend these meetings en masse to protest. But the hope is that if they can get the county commissioners to vote down these rezoning requests, that it will delay the project long enough to figure out how to stop it altogether. Even anti-Rivian folks acknowledge that if they're successful in pressuring the county commissions to deny these requests, that there is a little bit of a loophole. The Joint Development Authority can hand over land ownership status to the state and the state is not obligated to follow local zoning standards.
Steve Fennessy: OK, so if I understand this right, the JDA is technically the owners. And if the zoning doesn't go their way, they could just transfer ownership of the land to the state, and the state is not obligated to abide by those same zoning restrictions.
Tia Ivey: So at best, it's a delay, not a defeat.
Steve Fennessy: We talk about we have a governor in office, you know, who's a Republican who talks very much about the importance of local control. But when you're talking about economic development deals, they are by definition decided not locally, but at a state level. So how are people reacting to that kind of philosophical dissonance?
Tia Ivey: You know, a lot of them are jumping ship on Kemp. I understand that some of the members of the Rivian opposition have contacted David Perdue in hopes that he will take their side. And you know, it's a little pressure when he runs against Kemp for governor that he'll come out against Rivian. But they're definitely upset with Brian Kemp.
[News tape] Speaker at public meeting: In regards to the governor. He has no loyalty to our county or our citizens. He'll use this car company to promote his political reappointment and agenda to be reelected.
Steve Fennessy: And what are we hearing from Rivian itself about the opposition to their plans?
Tia Ivey: Rivian hasn't come out on the record addressing the opposition as of yet. However, they have pledged to hold a townhall meeting with locals to try to placate some of these concerns and outline in more detail their plans to protect the environment, to protect water, to be good community partners. That's what they've pledged.
[News tape] Rivian Chief People Officer Helen Russell: So we couldn't be more excited to be here today in Georgia to announce Rivian's decision to come here, because that allows Rivian to capitalize on the depth and breadth of talent that resides here in Georgia. And any employee lucky enough to come and work at Rivian will feel viscerally the maniacal focus that we have on creating the best possible environment.
Steve Fennessy: Beyond sort of the — the benefits of having, you know, a major employer in your backyard are there also tangible benefits in terms of just dollar amounts that that Morgan County and surrounding counties might see that would that they could use for whatever purposes they saw fit?
Tia Ivey: The official numbers haven't been released because the JDA is still in negotiations with Rivian and whether they offer these big companies pilot payments they pay in lieu of taxes for the first 20 years or so. But either way, annually, once they're up and running, they start paying money to the JDA, which then is filtered down to the four counties. One projection I saw that was filed by a Morton County Planning Commission director was $100 million per year to be divvied up between the four counties. It's not an even split. Morgan County's share or something like 14.95%, but it's a lot of money. A lot of money.
[News tape] WSB: The Newton County Chamber president says it is a huge win for the area. "To make it to the finish line and land this is is just a great experience for everyone involved."
Tia Ivey: So while citizens are concerned that their property taxes are going to go up in the short term to pay for some of the infrastructure, in the long term, this might offset a lot of the property taxes because we'll be having a steady stream of millions of dollars pouring into the county each year.
Steve Fennessy: The fear of their property taxes going up is — is — is just that, right now. It's a fear?
Tia Ivey: In the absence of information arise all kinds of fears.
Steve Fennessy: Tia, you've been covering this community, as you mentioned, for a decade now. How is these past months changed the way you see Morgan County?
Tia Ivey: In some ways this is right on brand for Morgan County. Development has always been a contentious issue here. Morgan County is a historic town. We are known for our antebellum architecture and rural land, small town activities. And this is by far the largest project ever proposed in Morgan County. So it hasn't changed my perspective too much on the county. If anything, this is right in step with kind of what I expected. You know, I'm from New Jersey, I'm from a city where you can't spread your arms out between the houses. And that is people's worst fear here. They want to keep Morgan County small. They don't want to be there, they're not that city. They're not that place. And they don't want to become it, least of all the "small but special" city of Rutledge.
Steve Fennessy: In less than a week residents opposed to the Rivian project raised more than $125,000 to hire a law firm to presumably mount a legal challenge against the proposed development. The name of the legal firm has yet to be announced. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer, our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.