Rivian opponents prepare for next round of fight against $5B EV plant

Group of residents who live near future factory site fundraise to continue their legal battles
Andrea Wilson (Left) and Gail Wilson pack barbecue lunches during the Rivian Opposition Barbecue fundraiser in Rutledge Saturday, March 25, 2023.   (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Andrea Wilson (Left) and Gail Wilson pack barbecue lunches during the Rivian Opposition Barbecue fundraiser in Rutledge Saturday, March 25, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

RUTLEDGE, Ga. — The organized opposition to a massive Rivian EV factory east of Atlanta is preparing for its next phase of battle as it awaits an appeals court panel decision on the electric vehicle startup’s incentive package.

The panel, which is expected to rule before the end of June, is weighing whether some $700 million in local property tax breaks were legally sound.

At a late March rally, Rivian critics, who are fighting on multiple fronts, gathered in a small park and sold plates of barbeque and raffled camping gear and homemade goods to raise money for legal fees. In one case, the state and a development authority asked a judge to order the opponents to pre-pay litigation expenses, an aggressive tactic intended to snuff out lawsuits that the governments call “frivolous.”

To the hundreds who showed up to support the anti-Rivian group, they say their fight against the factory is anything but.

“They came in the way they did without communication and just said y’all are gonna accept it,” Chas Moore, an opposition leader, said of the state. “It’s un-American as a citizen to take that.”

The state and the Joint Development Authority (JDA) of Jasper, Morgan, Newton, and Walton counties declined to comment on the fundraiser but have criticized the resistance group for the half-dozen lawsuits they’ve ignited. Crews with heavy equipment are preparing land along I-20 for a factory that Rivian says will employ 7,500 and supporters hope will lead to thousands more spin-off jobs.

“A small group of well-funded individuals continue to waste taxpayer dollars in an attempt to stop an investment that is not only happening, but will ultimately pay dividends for the community and the state of Georgia,” the state and JDA said in a joint statement.

Rutledge, on the northeastern edge of the 2,000-acre Rivian site, is a town of about 800 without a stoplight. The village has been wary of development long before the December 2021 announcement that Rivian was coming to Georgia.

Signs displaying “We Oppose Rivian” have been common sights on lawns and in business windows across rural Morgan and Walton counties since the EV factory was announced.

Some of those signs have started to come down — only to be replaced with new ones asserting: “We Still Oppose Rivian.”

Alan Jenkins (Right) talks to friends at the Rivian Opposition Barbecue fundraiser in Rutledge Saturday, March 25, 2023.  (Steve Schaefer/steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

John Christy, an Atlanta attorney for the Rivian opponents, said he expects the lawsuits to continue for months. Regardless of how the appeals court rules, he said another appeal is almost certain, which would land the case before the Georgia Supreme Court.

He said his clients won’t be intimidated by the recent motions asking them to pre-pay legal fees, given how many of their neighbors are funding their fight.

“They believe in what they’re doing,” Christy said.

Mixed-bag in court

Georgia has been aggressively pursuing EV manufacturing for years.

Rivian became the first automaker to announce plans to build a full assembly plant in Georgia since Kia said in 2006 it would build a factory in West Point. When announced, Rivian was the largest jobs deal in state history, only to be surpassed last May by Hyundai Motor Group, which is building a $5.54 billion factory with 8,100 jobs near Savannah.

But Hyundai has not seen the same kind of organized opposition Rivian has.

Aerial photograph shows the 2,000-acre Rivian factory site in southern Walton and Morgan counties, Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Social Circle. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

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Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

Rivian critics first focused on trying to stop rezoning, but the state took over the project before local officials got the chance to vote. The state asserts this was to simplify the process.

The opposition group, called Morgan Land, Sky & Water Preservation, has filed multiple lawsuits challenging the site takeover, claiming it as an overreach. The state contends it has sovereign immunity.

Rivian opponents notched their first victory challenging local tax breaks offered the automaker.

A local judge ruled that the state and JDA were unable to justify bonds at the center of $700 million in property tax breaks offered to Rivian. That ruling threatened nearly half of Rivian’s $1.5 billion incentive package.

An appeals court panel heard arguments from lawyers for the state and Rivian opponents in February.

But the Rivian opponents haven’t been able to sway judges on every case. Last fall, another local judge declined to issue a stop-work order for excavation, prompting Christy’s clients to withdraw and resubmit their zoning and permit challenges.

A political wedge

Anti-Rivian sentiment near the factory site is strong, but isn’t universal.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who challenged Gov. Brian Kemp for the GOP nomination last year, seized on Rivian opposition as a wedge issue. But Kemp steamrolled Perdue in the primary, even in counties near the future plant.

Since 2020, Kemp’s office said more than 35 EV-related projects have been announced in Georgia, totaling more than $21 billion in investment and 27,400 jobs, many of them in rural areas starving for investment. In return, state and local officials, meanwhile, have offered billions in local tax breaks, job tax credits and other incentives.

From left, Georgia Speaker of the House Jon Burns, Gov. Brian Kemp, and Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe look inside of the trunk of a Rivian electric vehicle following a news conference celebrating the first ever Rivian Day at the Georgia State Capitol on March 1,  2023. (Natrice Miller/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

A recent University of Georgia poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows a broad majority of Georgians back the state’s effort to develop an electric vehicle industry. Nearly two-thirds of voters either “strongly” or “somewhat” support Georgia’s practice of using incentives to turn Georgia into an EV hub.

Fred Perriman, the mayor of nearby Madison, said the new jobs will help keep young talent in the area.

“Some of those protesters, I promise you, some of their family members will try to get a job at that facility,” he said.

The state and JDA, in a statement about the future factory, said it “gives our young people more opportunities to achieve their full potential while living and working in their beloved hometowns.”

Blake McCormack was elected last November to the Morgan County Commission after centering his campaign around opposing the factory. He said Rivian officials haven’t properly engaged local residents.

“If I was bringing a company to a community, I would be there every day I could,” he said. “I would make sure I was engaged as much as possible. That has not happened.”

McCormack and several residents dismissed accusations that they’re a group of NIMBYs — short for “not in my backyard” — or conspiracy theorists opposed to EV technology.

But there was little love for Rivian at the March 25 fundraiser, where a pit-master smoked 25 Boston butts and 18 racks of ribs to satisfy the 300-plus people who bought tickets. When Christy took the stage, he started his speech taunting Rivian’s declining stock price to rounds of applause.

Rivian’s stock soared after its initial public offering in 2021. But the company’s shares have dropped by more than 88% since its high of nearly $130 per share in November 2021, amid supply chain issues that have hurt production.

Rivian lost $6.8 billion in 2022 and as a startup will likely continue to post losses as it ramps up production. Cox Enterprises, which owns the AJC, owns about a 4% stake in Rivian.

Diana Dietz drove to Rutledge from Fayetteville to learn how the Rivian opponents galvanized their forces. She hopes to do the same against a planned data center in her community.

“They are David facing Goliath,” she said.

Signs in front of the main stage quoted bible verses and featured phrases like “Agriculture Land = God’s Love.” A band from a church in nearby Social Circle played secular hits and Christian worship staples.

The timeline for the project has slipped, and Rivian has yet to hold a formal groundbreaking ceremony, though one is expected later this year. Taxpayer-funded excavation of the site continues, and the Georgia Department of Transportation is pursuing additional infrastructure improvements, such as a new interchange on I-20 and an access road.

The company will have the option to terminate its agreement with the state in May if the incentives lawsuit currently under appeal isn’t concluded in the state’s favor.

Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe told the AJC in early March he’s committed to bringing the factory to Georgia.

“The future of our company in terms of scaling and growing really relies on the future of this project,” he said. “There’s not another option. We’re not planning an alternative. This must work.”

Aerial photograph shows the 2,000-acre Rivian factory site in southern Walton and Morgan counties, Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Social Circle. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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