Rivian electric vehicle factory sparks concern in Georgia city
Clint Powell’s home in Social Circle, Georgia, sits on a 2-acre lot, about 300 yards from the property where electric vehicle maker Rivian plans to start building a giant factory soon.
He’s pretty sure it’s going to change his life, but locals like him are still trying to figure out just how much.
Some are exploring whether they can stop or limit the project, including putting up possible zoning obstacles.
“I think the size of this Rivian plant really scares a lot of people,” said Powell, an electrical contractor who has lived in the area for 17 years.
For months last year, as local and state authorities secretly negotiated 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 that he would build a $5 billion factory on a site of around 2,000 acres here and employ around 7,500 people. Governor Brian Kemp called it the largest economic development project in state history.
Locals say they are still struggling to get information even as Rivian plans to innovate in the coming months. Rivian says he will meet neighbors but did not share a date. Local authorities canceled a community meeting last week after residents left a previous meeting in frustration.
Among the unanswered questions: How much new traffic can residents expect? How close will the plant be to the 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 haven’t had much time to organize either. Some street signs have started popping up in Social Circle, a population of 4,974, in Walton County. In the small neighboring Morgan County community of Rutledge, across from the planned plant, a “Rutledge Opposed to Rivian Assembly Plant” Facebook group has about 770 members, almost as many as the town’s population.
Approximately 55% of the proposed plant site is zoned for agricultural and residential use, and the local joint development authority has submitted applications to rezone this area for industrial use. Morgan and Walton county commissioners will hold separate votes on March 1. The Social Circle City Council will vote on March 15.
Thwarting the plant may take a long time, but it could work, said Social Circle resident John Gardner.
“If you have enough people who show enough passion and raise their voices that they don’t want it here, and if the government realizes the impact it will have on people’s lives, it can be denied,” said Gardner, who called the secrecy around the project “disturbing.”
The local Joint Development Authority declined to make its executives available to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for interviews for this story. The state Department of Economic Development also declined to comment.
In an emailed statement, California-based Rivian said she was “committed to becoming a valued member of the communities surrounding our Georgia facility,” including “listening first to our future neighbours” and its dedication to “sustainability and conservation”.
Cox Enterprises, owner of AJC, owns a 4.7% stake in Rivian and provides services to Rivian. Sandy Schwartz, a Cox executive who oversees AJC, is a member of Rivian’s board of directors and personally owns shares. He does not participate in 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 Rivian 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 live near those sites.
Ken Edwards said it was good for Georgia for Rivian to create jobs, but that he left Dacula for Social Circle “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 consist of 12 buildings with approximately 19.8 million square feet of indoor space. The site will also have parking lots for cars and logistics trailers, waste treatment and recycling facilities, stormwater management ponds and several new roads.
The State Department of Transportation will likely build a new interchange where Old Mill Road intersects I-20. Lighting for employee parking areas “will follow dark sky principles to reduce light pollution.” The property will also include buffer zones of at least 100 feet near residential areas, according to the site plan.
At a community forum in the gymnasium of Social Circle Middle School attended by about 150 people on January 10, residents expressed concerns about traffic, noise and water quality. Many were unhappy with the responses from Shane Short, executive director of the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties.
Amid questions that have sometimes heated up, nondisclosure agreements highlighted by Short are the norm in recruiting for major economic development projects.
When an attendee asked Short about possible conflicts of interest involving Alan Verner, the former chairman of the authority that sells land for the Rivian project, Short said Verner left the room during the votes. The crowd responded with a sarcastic laugh.
Short and Verner did not respond to requests for comment. The authority has canceled a community forum in Rutledge scheduled for January 20.
Factory plans seem to be advancing rapidly. Short says contracts for the sale of land to residents will be finalized in March and work on the site will begin this spring. Rivian said last month it plans to start construction this summer, with electric vehicle production beginning in 2024.
Mike Burdette is not happy. After living in Conyers for over 50 years, he and his wife decided to move to a less developed area and chose Rutledge.
“When we first moved to Conyers it was a nice, quiet community,” he said. “Then it grew and grew. We eventually moved to a place that we thought was peaceful and quiet, and then it popped up.”
Burdette completed the purchase of her new home on December 17. A day earlier, Rivian had announced that it would be building nearby. Burdette said it was too late to back down.
Information for this article was provided by Curtis Compton of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.