A day before the Joint Development Authority held its regular meeting on Feb. 22, the State of Georgia announced its intention to take ownership of the 2,000-acre site earmarked for the new $5 billion Rivian Automotive plant in Morgan and Walton counties, at the behest of the JDA, the four-county board previously developing the project.
The move allows the state to supersede local zoning hearings in each county, leaving the local anti-Rivian movement in an uproar as any hope for local control is dashed.
About 85 anti-Rivian protesters, donned in red to symbolize their opposition, flooded last Tuesday’s JDA meeting to confront members for passing off the development process over to the state authorities, accusing the JDA of abdicating their responsibility to represent the people of the four counties and skirting the local rezoning hearings to avoid the proposed strict conditions for approval from each jurisdiction.
Morgan County’s Planning staff alone created a list of 26 conditions for the county to impose upon Rivian before approving any rezoning necessary for the project to move forward. But the JDA withdrew the rezoning applications for Rivian and instead asked state officials to step in to take over the project in order to “streamline” the process. Now, four state-created committees will oversee the development process for Rivian.
Republican Vernon Jones, running for Congress, made a brief appearance in solidarity with Anti-Rivan demonstrators, but left soon after the meeting began. About 20 speakers leveled all kinds of accusations against members of the JDA during Tuesday’s meeting, including being unethical, secretive, money-hungry, and even criminal.
Andy Ainslie, a Morgan County Commissioner and JDA member, took the brunt of criticisms from Rutledge residents who feel he betrayed the “Small, But Special” community by supporting the Rivian project.
“How would you feel if this was being built on your farm?” one woman pointedly asked Ainslie.
“We’re known as the town Sherman didn’t burn,” said Marsha Stephens. “Y’all will forever have the legacy of ruining it.”
Edwin Snell, an Oconee resident, threw his red cap to the floor and kicked it toward the JDA members as he railed against the Rivian development.
“This project will destroy this county. And everybody with a brain knows it. Morgan County will look like my old home of Gwinnett County in 10 years. If you want to live in Gwinnett County, go live there. But this is a rural county” shouted Snell, pointing his finger at the JDA accusing them of being money-motivated crooks.
“These people are angry. They’re hurt. They’re scared. And you don’t represent them,” Snell said. Then Snell, who argued Rivian would deplete local water sources, accused the JDA of purposely deceiving the public.
“You all are like the Wizard of Oz and we are going to tear back the curtain,” said Snell.
Sandy McKay asked the JDA to reveal the incentives given to Rivian by the State of Georgia and how much those tax breaks and other incentives would cost taxpayers.
“Grants don’t come from God, they come from taxpayers,” said McKay. “How much is this actually going to cost us? We struggle to survive and money you steal from us is irresponsibly spent and we have no recourse.”
Chas Moore, one of the leaders in the Anti-Rivian group, criticized the JDA, especially the elected officials on the JDA, for signing Non-Disclosure Agreements that prevented them from discussing the Rivian deal publicly before the decision was officially made.
“It’s not ethical,” said Moore.
Jeanne Dufort, a local voting rights activist and second vice chair of the Morgan County Democrats, decried the decision to bypass votes from the local zoning boards.
“This was an antidemocratic move today,” lamented Dufort. “People who live in a place have a deep, deep interest in what happens to that place…You made a decision to cede that responsibility and in doing that you created a loud layer of unaccountability between the citizens and the decision makers.
The No2Rivian group issued an official statement after the state’s announcement to take over the Rivian project.
“We are ecstatic that they heard our concerns about community involvement but we certainly hope they aren’t trading transparency for expediency. We were already concerned about the lack of meaningful public input but rather than shedding light on the process, the State’s actions can be interpreted as further seeking to cloak this process in the darkness of closed conference rooms insulated from public scrutiny,” said the group. “The announcement that the State will take title to the property — if true — can only be construed as a cynical attempt to fast track the process by bypassing the normal and customary regulatory processes.”
The JDA did not issue a response to any of the speakers individually. However, JDA Chairman Jerry Silvio encouraged the crowd to visit the JDA website to read the plethora of studies completed that are now available for public review at www.stantonsprings.com/Rivian.
The available documents include various environmental studies examining Rivian’s impacts on groundwater, wildlife, and other factors. The JDA believes any negative impacts from the plant can be adequately mitigated and controlled through environmental regulations and technological solutions.
Silvio defended the decision to call in the State to take over the process in the beginning of the meeting.
“The JDA is grateful for the State’s partnership on the Rivian project and looks forward to helping as needed. The JDA wants everyone to feel a sense of ownership and inclusion as we welcome Rivian to our community.”
But the Anti-Rivian crowd isn’t rolling over just yet. With a $250,000 legal fight up their sleeve, the opposition movement may be planning to take the State to court over the largest economic development deal in Georgia’s history.