The state is getting more aggressive in its defense of the planned $5 billion Rivian electric vehicle factory an hour east of Atlanta, which faces lawsuits from a group of residents opposed to the gigantic project.
In motions filed last week in Morgan County Superior Court, the state and a local development authority argued that a judge should order the opposition group to pre-pay litigation costs as a bond in order to continue their legal battle over the factory site’s zoning and permits. Lawyers for the state call the residents’ complaints “frivolous,” and say the tab to taxpayers is currently more than $122,000. That figure could increase as litigation continues.
The tactic is designed to pressure the Rivian critics into dropping their cases, though a lawyer for the residents scoffed at it.
The state and development authority said in a joint statement: “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. It’s time to end the legal battles and stop expending needless attorneys fees being paid out of local and state coffers.”
John Christy, an attorney representing Rivian opponents, said this is an effort by the state to subdue his clients, which include six residents who live or own property near the site.
“The motion for the bond is simply a means of trying to discourage my clients from proceeding,” he said.
Christy’s clients are embroiled in two zoning-related lawsuits against government officials related to the Rivian project, one of the state’s largest economic development deals and one that promises 7,500 jobs.
One lawsuit is in Morgan County and accuses the county’s leaders of failing to enforce their codes, while the other is in Fulton County against the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties (JDA).
Both lawsuits effectively make the same claims, accusing the state of circumventing local zoning codes to avoid local pushback.
In February 2022, the state assumed control of the 2,000-acre project site, which is owned by the JDA. The state simultaneously withdrew rezoning requests 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.
Several Morgan County residents filed a lawsuit last year to challenge the takeover and stop excavation. However, they withdrew the lawsuit in December after Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Judge Stephen Bradley declined to issue a stop-work order — only to effectively refile the suits at the end of January.
The state and JDA said the new lawsuits are an attempt to slow down work on the Rivian project and have no legal basis. The state added that Bradley, the same judge over the new Morgan County lawsuit, said that 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 when denying the stop-work order.
The state’s request for upfront attorneys’ fees, called a petition for bond under the Public Lawsuits Act, would require the plaintiffs to pay the governments’ litigation costs as a bond, which could be repaid to the residents if they win the lawsuit. The law allows for this in an effort to discourage abusive lawsuits.
Christy denied that this is a meritless lawsuit, adding that his clients’ concerns deserve their day in court.
“If it’s such a frivolous case, my God, they’ve spent $122,000 on it already,” Christy said. “If the law is so clear and cut-and-dry, then why did it take $122,000 to figure it out?”
The state and JDA filed several other additional motions last week, including a request to dismiss the case, a motion to intervene in the Morgan County case and their responses to the plaintiff’s complaint.
In a separate legal battle, the state and JDA are asking an appeals court panel to reinstate some $700 million of local tax breaks that were struck down by a different local judge.
California-based Rivian has the ability to terminate its agreement with the state and JDA in May if the local tax breaks aren’t approved. But Rivian CEO R.J. Scaringe recently said that “the future of our company in terms of scaling and growing really relies on the future of this project” in Georgia.
The company announced last week it is selling $1.3 billion in bonds to support the future Georgia manufacturing plant.
Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, owns about a 4% stake in Rivian.
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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com