Rivian’s Georgia electric vehicle plant sparks fears among neighbors

Concerned residents in rural area struggle to get answers to questions
Keith Wilson said he moved from Cobb County "to get away from the Braves stadium." His 17-acre Rutledge farm now faces new growth and he posted a sign in his yard opposing the Rivian assembly plant on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Keith Wilson said he moved from Cobb County "to get away from the Braves stadium." His 17-acre Rutledge farm now faces new growth and he posted a sign in his yard opposing the Rivian assembly plant on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”`

Clint Powell’s home in Social Circle sits on a two-acre lot, about 300 yards from the property where electric vehicle maker Rivian plans to begin building a giant factory soon.

He’s pretty sure it will change his life, but residents like him are still trying to find out how much.

Some are exploring if they can stop or limit the project, including throwing up possible zoning roadblocks.

“I think the size of this Rivian plant really scares a lot of people,” said Powell, an electrical contractor who has been living in the area for 17 years.

For months last year, as local and state authorities negotiated in secret with Rivian, residents were kept in the dark in this largely rural area about 45 miles east of Atlanta.

A few days before Christmas, Rivian confirmed it will build a $5 billion factory on a roughly 2,000-acre site here and employ about 7,500 people. Gov. Brian Kemp called it the largest economic-development project in state history.

Area residents say they are still struggling to get information even as Rivian plans to break ground in the coming months. Rivian says it will meet with neighbors but hasn’t shared a date. Local authorities canceled a community meeting this past week after residents left an earlier meeting frustrated.

Among the unanswered questions: How much new traffic can residents expect? How close will the factory get to property lines? How bright will the lighting be? How will the water supply be protected?

Local opposition to the plant appears loosely organized, but residents also haven’t had much time to organize. Some yard signs have begun popping up in Social Circle, population 4,974, in Walton County. In the smaller neighboring Morgan County community of Rutledge, on the other side of the planned plant, a “Rutledge Opposed to Rivian Assembly Plant” Facebook group has about 770 members, almost as large as the town’s population.

Local resident Ken Edwards makes his way through the mostly quiet main street commercial district in Social Circle, Georgia, while out for his five-mile run/walk on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. The nearby Rivian project excites developers, but local residents are mostly apprehensive. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

About 55% of the proposed factory site is zoned for agricultural and residential use, and the local joint development authority has submitted applications to rezone that acreage for industrial use. Morgan and Walton county commissioners will hold separate votes March 1. Social Circle’s city council will vote March 15.

Thwarting the factory may be a long shot, but it could work, said John Gardner, a Social Circle resident.

“If you have enough people that show enough passion and make their voices heard that they do not want it here, and if the government realizes the impact that this will have on people’s lives, it can be turned down,” said Gardner, who called the secrecy around the project “unsettling.”

The local joint development authority declined to make its executives available to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for interviews for this article. The state Department of Economic Development also declined comment.

In an emailed statement, California-based Rivian said it is “dedicated to becoming a valued member of the communities surrounding our Georgia facility,” including “listening first to our future neighbors” and dedication to “sustainability and conservation.”

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.

The area around the proposed Rivian site, just north of I-20, is dotted with farmland, woods and homes. In Social Circle, General Mills operates a warehouse less than a tenth the size of the proposed Rivan plant. On the south side of I-20, a large Takeda pharmaceutical plant and a Facebook data center have been built in recent years, but residents say fewer people lived near those sites.

Ken Edwards said it’s good for Georgia that Rivian will create jobs, but that he moved to Social Circle from Dacula “for the small-town atmosphere, and I would hate to lose that.”

According to a site plan posted online recently by economic development officials, the plant will include 12 buildings with about 19.8 million square feet of interior space. The site also will have parking lots for cars and logistics trailers, waste and recycling facilities, storm-water management ponds and several new roads.

The state Department of Transportation likely will build a new interchange where Old Mill Road crosses I-20. Lighting for employee parking areas will “follow dark sky principles to reduce light pollution.” The property also will include minimum 100-foot buffers near residential areas, according to the site plan.

 Local resident Ann Lowe, 78, doesn't need a cross-walk to make her way back to her car on the other side of the main drag in downtown Social Circle after going to a store in the small Georgia town on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

At a community forum in the Social Circle Middle School gymnasium attended by about 150 people on Jan. 10, residents voiced concerns about traffic, noise and water quality. Many weren’t happy with the responses from Shane Short, executive director of the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties.

Amid questioning that grew heated at times, Short stressed nondisclosure agreements are standard in recruiting large economic-development projects.

When an attendee asked Short about possible conflicts of interest involving Alan Verner, the authority’s former chairman who is selling land for the Rivian project, Short said Verner left the room when votes were taken. The crowd responded with sarcastic laughter.

Short and Verner did not respond to requests for comment. The authority canceled a community forum in Rutledge planned for Jan. 20.

Plant plans appear to be moving quickly. Short told residents land sale contracts will be finalized in March and site work will begin this spring. Rivian said last month it planned to start construction this summer, with production of electric vehicles beginning in 2024.

Mike Burdette isn’t happy. After living in Conyers for more than 50 years, he and his wife decided to move to a less-developed area and picked Rutledge.

“When we first moved to Conyers, it was a nice, quiet community,” he said. “Then it grew and grew. We finally moved to a place we thought would be peaceful and quiet and then this popped up.”

Burdette closed on the purchase of his new home Dec. 17. A day earlier, Rivian announced it would be building nearby. Burdette said it was too late to back out.

---Staff photographer Curtis Compton contributed to this article.