Georgia state government steps in to move Rivian EV plant forward

Locally elected officials won’t vote on rezoning amid neighborhood opposition
Keith Wilson, who said he moved from Cobb County to his 17-acre Rutledge farm, posting a sign in his yard opposing the Rivian assembly plant on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Rutledge. "Curtis Compton /”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Keith Wilson, who said he moved from Cobb County to his 17-acre Rutledge farm, posting a sign in his yard opposing the Rivian assembly plant on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Rutledge. "Curtis Compton /”`

The state of Georgia has stepped in to take control of the Rivian site near Covington amid local opposition to the planned $5 billion electric vehicle plant.

Local elected officials had been scheduled to vote next month on whether to rezone the 2,000 acres of rural property east of Atlanta for industrial use. They faced pressure from hundreds or thousands of area residents unhappy with the massive proposed factory.

But now local officials won’t vote, after the state assumed control and withdrew rezoning applications. The state can more easily bypass local zoning laws.

Local residents who oppose the Rivian plant already faced long odds to block the project, which Gov. Brian Kemp hailed as the largest economic development project in state history when it was announced in December. Environmental groups also support the plant, viewing Rivian’s electric vehicles as a way to reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change.

Rutledge resident Chas Moore, who helped organize a legal fund to challenge the plant, declined Tuesday to comment on opponents’ next steps. The plant is located about 40 miles east of Atlanta, between the small communities of Social Circle and Rutledge.

Many details on how the Rivian site will be transferred to the state remain unclear, including whether the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties must hold a public vote to approve it. It’s also unclear whether the state must purchase the Rivian site, or if the JDA can simply gift it to the state.

A similar process happened with the Kia Motors plant in West Point.

In 2006, local officials assembled about 30 rural parcels for the Kia factory near the Alabama border. The state of Georgia later took ownership of the 2,200-acre site and started pre-development site work for Kia while the South Korean automaker handled construction of the factory, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

The state took an outsize role in the Kia project because it was one of the largest economic development projects in state history and had major infrastructure requirements, a person familiar with the matter told the AJC.

Much of that is true with the Rivian project. But the Kia factory was built in an area where textile manufacturing job losses battered the local economy, and Kia had less community opposition than Rivian.

In addition to a local legal fund that raised more than $150,000 in recent weeks, two local Facebook groups opposing the Rivian plant have sprung up. Hundreds of residents have shown up at local government meetings, voicing concerns that the plant will upturn their daily lives and harm the local water supply. Many also complain that local authorities and Rivian haven’t shared information after the deal was struck in secret.

Rivian also has local supporters. On Tuesday, about 330 people attended a Newton Chamber of Commerce meeting in Social Circle to learn more about the plant from local authorities and a Rivian spokesman.

Jamie Adams, a chiropractor in Covington who attended the meeting, said she wants to see efforts to boost the local economy. “I’m excited that they’re coming.”

Rivian will hold community meetings this spring and supports the state’s move to take ownership of the site, company spokesman Peebles Squire said in an emailed statement.

“For us to be successful in Georgia, it’s important that we spend time listening to local concerns, addressing them as best we can,” he said.

Cox Enterprises, owner of the AJC, owns a 4.7% stake in Rivian and supplies services to Rivian. Sandy Schwartz, a Cox executive who oversees the AJC, is on Rivian’s board of directors and holds stock personally. He does not take part in the AJC’s coverage of Rivian.

State officials appeared to recognize the intensity of the local opposition to Rivian. Georgia’s Department of Economic Development said it will create committees that include members of the public to analyze environmental and workforce issues and other areas.

The opposition group Morgan Land, Sky and Water preservation is “ecstatic” the state heard its concerns about community input, Moore, one of its organizers, said in an emailed statement. But transferring ownership to the state “can be interpreted as further seeking to cloak this process in the darkness of closed conference rooms,” he added.