A group of residents near the future $5 billion Rivian electric vehicle plant is taking state and local officials back to court.
Six people, who either live in or own property in Morgan County near the 2,000-acre project site, filed lawsuits Friday accusing the state of illegally circumventing local zoning codes and land disturbance permits while local officials refuse to enforce their codes.
The litigation effectively continues a legal battle that was briefly paused in December after a local judge refused to issue a stop-work order against grading work taking place in preparation for Rivian. John Christy, an attorney representing opponents of the development, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his clients had to file two lawsuits, one in Fulton County and one in Morgan County, to individually sue the state and county.
He said the state is trying to take over the project because a rezoning effort was threatened by local opposition.
“It’s a question of whether or not the state can run roughshod over the citizens because the state wants something to be done even though it’s not for a public use or purpose,” Christy said. “It’s for a private enterprise.”
The EV factory is slated for rural property in southern Morgan and Walton counties, located roughly an hour east of Atlanta. The site, which consists of 28 parcels owned by a local development authority, is zoned for agricultural use, not industrial.
Last February, the state assumed control of the project and withdrew rezoning applications before local officials got a chance to vote on them. In many situations, local zoning does not apply to state-owned land, which includes properties owned by development authorities.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development said the new lawsuits are an attempt to slow down work on the Rivian project and have no legal basis.
“It is crystal clear that plaintiffs’ motivation is to file as many frivolous suits as possible and try to delay and stall progress on the Rivian project in a weak effort to cause Rivian to pull out of the deal — ultimately denying thousands of Georgians high-quality jobs and billions in new investments,” the department said in a statement.
County officials declined to comment, saying they haven’t been served on the new case and haven’t reviewed the complaint.
The zoning battle is one of multiple legal efforts the Rivian project has faced due to local backlash. While the project enjoys support among many community and business leaders, it has generated vocal opposition from residents who worry the massive EV factory will upend their rural way of life by influencing further development and generating traffic.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
California-based Rivian said it will employ 7,500 workers at the factory, which is slated to begin manufacturing vehicles in 2025. In exchange, state and local leaders offered Rivian more than $1.5 billion in incentives, including tax breaks, grants, free infrastructure and land.
The incentives have also faced challenges in court, with a Morgan County judge shooting down about $700 million in local property tax breaks in September. That ruling is being appealed.
The latest lawsuit against Morgan County will appear before the same judge, Stephen Bradley, who declined to issue the stop-work order despite complaints that the excavation was sending dirt and mud onto neighboring properties and in one case, contaminating water wells and pool filters.
In his denial of the stop-work order, Bradley said 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 wrote.
After he ruled against the stop-work order, they withdrew the lawsuit. The state argued the withdrawal would only prolong a legal battle the plaintiffs had little chance of winning, but Bradley said Georgia law allows them to withdraw and refile even if the “dismissal is alleged to be in bad faith and causes inconvenience and irritation to the defendant.”
Christy said his clients aren’t asking for another stop-work order, but they hope a judge will agree that the state can’t circumvent local zoning codes and must obtain land disturbance permits. If victorious, Christy said he’ll ask for the state to have to revert the land back to the way it was, which would likely cost millions of dollars.
“While it may be illaudable that the state wants to make Georgia the EV capitol of the world, it can’t do so at the expense of its citizens and certainly not at the expense of the law,” Christy said.
Andrew Capezzuto, chief administrative officer and general counsel for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said he’ll be seeking attorneys’ fees in order to reimburse “the considerable taxpayer dollars” being spent on the continued litigation.
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.