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State appeals court rules mostly in favor of Rivian tax incentives
Trial court rules EV plant opponents must post bond in zoning fight
Rivian site
The Rivian site is shown in this photo from February. (Special | Our Communities Oppose Rivian Assembly Plant)

ATLANTA — The state Court of Appeals overturned a Morgan County judge’s ruling Friday, April 28, that would have prevented the state from offering $700 million in property tax breaks to Rivian for its planned electric vehicle production facility near Social Circle.

The Fulton County Superior Court also ruled April 24 that Rivian opponents must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue a lawsuit seeking to require the plant to be subject to local zoning standards.

The appeals court's Friday ruling was in answer to a Joint Development Authority (JDA) appeal of a 2022 ruling that a Morgan County judge erred in determining that a rental agreement the state has with Rivian for its 2,000-acre site gave the company “an estate for years rather than a usufruct.” 

“Finding error, we agree,” the appeals court judges stated in their April 28 ruling.

“A usufruct is created when the owner of real estate grants to another person the right simply to possess and enjoy the use of such real estate either for a fixed time or at the will of the grantor.

“In such a case, no estate passes out of the landlord and the usufruct may not be conveyed except by the landlord’s consent, nor is it subject to levy and sale.”

However, two of the three appeals court judges said Rivian may owe certain taxes on plant equipment that the agreement with the state and would have exempted.

Jo Ellen Artz of the residents’ group No2Rivian said on Facebook following the Friday, April 28, ruling that it would be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court “just as the state and JDA have indicated that they would, if they lost.”

“Remember, we did not lose the entire case,” she said.

The JDA and Georgia Department of Economic Development said in a joint statement that the Court of Appeals issued an order “largely overruling the Morgan County Superior Court’s decision.” 

The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state and the JDA on four out of the five issues on appeal, they noted.

“This order confirms the state and JDA’s arguments that the Rivian deal is sound, reasonable and feasible and constitutes a usufruct,” they said.

“Beyond that, the order concludes that the state and JDA provided unrefuted evidence that this project is not only a benefit to the local community, but its scale on a statewide level is considered the ‘holy grail’ of economic development projects, as it will create 7,500 new jobs, additional tax revenue, and likelihood of suppliers locating to the area.

“This decision reinforces that Rivian, the state and JDA have a clear pathway to continue moving this project forward. We are excited to celebrate Rivian’s arrival to Georgia and look forward to seeing continued progress on this project in the months to come.”

The ruling followed the Fulton County Superior Court’s April 24 decision that Rivian opponents must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue a lawsuit seeking to require the Rivian site to come under local zoning standards.

A ruling by Judge Thomas Cox stated the Morgan County-based group — which is seeking to stop construction of the facility — will be required to post a $364,619 bond to continue the legal action which it will forfeit if the state prevails.

The 2,000-acre site straddles the line between Walton and Morgan counties on the north side of I-20. The land is divided between the city of Social Circle and unincorporated Morgan and Walton counties.

Artz said on Facebook that the judge’s decision was “bad news followed by good news” because it also allowed opponents to delay construction.

“Within 15 minutes of the judge advising our legal team of his decision he also gave them permission to submit an appeal to the

Georgia Court of Appeals. The really good news is that this appeal can take another nine to 10 months. 

“It almost seems as if the state shot itself in the foot because they are causing these court cases to be drawn out longer and longer. Heck, Rivian could be out of business before the appeals are complete!”

According to a joint statement from the Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Joint Development

Authority, the plaintiffs’ chances of winning the challenge are low and long-established legal precedents hold that state-owned property is not subject to zoning.

“Rivian’s manufacturing facility is being constructed on state-owned land for the governmental purpose of economic development. As Judge Cox confirmed, it is well-established in Georgia law that state-owned property is exempt from local zoning and other regulations when it is used for a governmental purpose.”