Judge allows grading work to continue on Rivian site amid lawsuit

Plaintiffs argue site work is causing dirt and sediment to burden nearby properties
An East Atlanta Megasite sign marking the Rivian project site sits next to sign for the historic downtown of Social Circle, Georgia, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. The Rivian project excites developers, but nearby residents are mostly apprehensive. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

An East Atlanta Megasite sign marking the Rivian project site sits next to sign for the historic downtown of Social Circle, Georgia, on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. The Rivian project excites developers, but nearby residents are mostly apprehensive. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Site work will continue at the future Rivian electric vehicle plant east of Atlanta after a local judge declined to issue a stop-work order that could have jeopardized the $5 billion factory.

Five residents near the factory site sued to stop excavation work on the 2,000-acre Rivian factory site in southern Walton and Morgan counties, claiming the activity was sending mud onto their properties and even, at least in one case, into their well water.

Ocmulgee Superior Courts Judge Stephen Bradley denied the stop-work motion Friday in a filing that was made public Monday. His ruling cast doubts as to whether Rivian opponents will be able to find a legal avenue to stop the factory.

“This motion is clearly a machination not to redress an irreparable harm but to stop the construction of the Rivian production plant,” Bradley wrote in his order. “While that may be a desirable goal, this suit does not provide a mechanism for doing so.”

John Christy, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he’s disappointed and disagrees with Bradley’s ruling but will press on with the lawsuit. He said if they’re victorious, he’ll ask the courts to order the state to return the land to its original state, which would cost several million dollars.

“They’re proceeding at their own risk,” Christy said.

The five residents, who all either live or own property in Morgan County, filed their lawsuit Oct. 21 also claiming the parcels were never rezoned from agricultural use to industrial, but should have been, and that local officials did not obtain the proper county land disturbance permits.

The lawsuit is against the Joint Development Authority (JDA) of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties and Plateau Excavation, which the JDA agreed to pay nearly $40 million to grade the first 500 acres.

In court filings, state officials said they’ve already spent more than $70 million on the project. They argued the case threatens the deal since Rivian could walk away if an injunction were in place on the project by May 2023.

The state and JDA in a statement called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said “we will continue the legally responsible and efficient development of the Rivian site for this generational opportunity to bring good-paying, innovative, American jobs of the future to Georgia.”

The lawsuit also names as defendants all five members of the Morgan County Board of Commissioners and the county’s planning director, claiming they are not enforcing local codes.

One of the plaintiffs, Edward Clay, testified that his swimming pool and two wells that supply drinking water have become clogged with sediment since grading began. State attorneys argued could not have come from the Rivian work site.

Plateau self-reported multiple heavy rain incidents since grading began where sediment left the Rivian site. The first incident, where roughly 1.25 inches of rain fell overnight Oct. 12, prompted a notice of violation from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. No fine was issued.

Edward Clay entered photos of his well filters into evidence (left), claiming that they were clogged with dirt and mug after Plateau Excavation began work on the nearby Rivian site. On Oct. 13, Plateau self-reported that sediment escaped the site following more than an inch of rainfall the previous day.

Credit: Edward Clay / Georgia Department of Natural Resources

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Credit: Edward Clay / Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Two more plaintiffs said the dust, light and noise from the construction will harm their cattle and reduce their property values. The judge said he sympathized with their plights, which he called short-term “inconvenient nuisances.”

But he said the damage doesn’t warrant stopping construction until the entire lawsuit concludes.

“While they have presented some evidence of harm to their property, that evidence does not rise to the level of a substantial threat of irreparable injury,” Bradley said.

Rivian, a California-based EV startup, announced the massive factory last December. In exchange for the investment and 7,500 promised jobs, state and local leaders offered Rivian more than $1.5 billion in incentives, including tax breaks, grants, free infrastructure and land.

The project enjoys support among many community and business leaders in Walton and Morgan counties, but it also has generated vocal opposition. The state stepped in earlier this year to take control of the property, in part, to more easily bypass local zoning. The state instead created committees that include members of the public to analyze environmental, workforce and quality of life issues.

State attorneys argue sovereign immunity allows the Georgia Department of Economic Development to pursue the project despite local zoning codes. Bradley agreed in his ruling, saying the plaintiffs can’t “tell the state how to handle its land.” He added that the Rivian opponents have an uphill battle to stop the project from moving forward.

“Attempting to enforce local restrictions on state property, the main thrust of this litigation, appears to this court to have a relatively low chance of ultimately prevailing at trial,” Bradley said.

However, the opposition group has had some success in court.

In September, another Morgan County judge sided with Rivian opponents and shot down about $700 million in local property tax breaks. That ruling is being appealed.

Despite the legal battles, Rivian’s top officials recently affirmed their commitment to coming to Georgia during a third-quarter earning call with investors.

A note of disclosure

Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also owns about a 4% stake in Rivian and supplies services to the company. 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.