Rutledge vs. Rivian: Morgan County residents fight development of massive manufacturing plant
JoEllen Artz has been living in Rutledge, Ga., for nearly 20 years. Her love for Morgan County’s well-preserved landscapes and historic architecture started before she officially moved. Like many other residents, she used to live in Atlanta before she retired.
“I retired from Rich's, not Macy's, and my husband retired from Delta.” Artz said. “We moved out here because of the environment. It's rural.”
That appeal is what attracted Tonya Bechtler to move to Morgan County five years ago.
“I chose this area because it's clean,” she said. “There's no litter. There's no water contamination. We don't have landfills. We don't have trash everywhere. For me, riding out here, it was just spectacular.”
That’s all thanks to careful planning and maintenance outlined in the Morgan County Comprehensive Plan. In 2017, county leaders sat down and created a vision for the next 20 years that prioritized green space, conservation, rural living, and gradual development. These factors are what appeal to residents old and new like JoEllen Artz and Tanya Bechtler.
Now, the Rivian manufacturing plant could change all that in just two years. The 2,200-acre development is scheduled to begin construction summer 2022, and county leaders will make their final approval of the project in less than one month.
Some residents feel the process is moving too quickly. So, they started organizing. Concerned citizens showed up to town halls and board meetings — and things quickly became heated.
At a Joint Development Authority meeting in January, one resident compared the developers' lack of transparency to cockroaches who “come out in the dark and then when you turn the light on they all run and hide.”
However, some residents near the site don’t want to see it built at all. On Facebook, a group called “Our Communities Oppose Rivian Assembly Plant” has over 2,000 members.
Artz is one of them.
“I'm not against electric vehicles,” she said. “In fact, I haven't heard anybody on our Facebook page say that they're against electric vehicles.”
Instead, the group is focused more on what benefits Rivian will bring to the community. Artz said all the new jobs might not be what the community needs.
“It's a heavily retired population," she said. "There's less than 20,000 people in our county. If they hire 7,500 people, that will be like, every day, bringing in a third of our county population.”
Artz and others in the group worry the influx of commuters would create more traffic, more litter and diminish their quality of life. So, the Rivian opposition group is focused on persuading Morgan County officials to reject the rezoning requests the project needs to move forward.
A recent study from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission provided more evidence to back up the group's requests. The commission's regional impact report found the Rivian development “generally inconsistent with the Morgan County Comprehensive Plan” and the region’s plans for development overall.
The report cited construction on the Rivian plant could affect drinking water quality, harm adjacent wetlands, and damage historic areas on the site, including a cemetery.
Rivian isn’t the first car manufacturer to move production to Georgia. Ford and General Motors both had plants near Atlanta that ultimately closed in 2006 and 2008. Korean automaker Kia also built a plant in West Point, Ga., in 2010 which is still open.
Bechtler said she feels like residents are being pushed against a wall.
“Be transparent, give us all the information; that's what we're asking for,” Bechtler said. “If it's legal and you've done everything by the book and we don't have any say — Oh, I can choose to move, but don't give me 45 days to make that decision and have to come out of my pocket with money to fight this.”
Betchler isn’t the only resident spending their own money. The Rivian Opposition group is raising the $250,000 needed to retain a legal team to fight the manufacturer. It had gathered $125,000 in donations by late January, and said Donald D.J. Stack, the lead attorney with Stack & Associates, will represent the group. The first step in the legal battle so far has been requesting a delay for rezoning in neighboring Walton County.
This conflict could reach another important crossroads in a few weeks: Morgan County commissioners are scheduled to hold a planning and zoning review Feb. 24 and cast the rezoning votes March 1.
An earlier version of this story said the Rivian Opposition group had raised the full $250,000 retainer to hire a legal team. To date, the group is still raising funds toward that goal.