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JDA seeks new assessors meeting to affirm Rivian site's tax status
Opposition group reportedly hires more legal help in effort to halt plant's construction
JoEllen Artz
Rutledge resident JoEllen Artz speaks as Joint Development Authority attorney Andrea Gray and member David Thompson listen during a meeting Tuesday, April 26, in the Walton County Historic Courthouse in Monroe. - photo by Tom Spigolon

MADISON, Ga. — An opposition group reportedly hired more legal help this week in its fight against the Rivian vehicle plant's construction while the Joint Development Authority (JDA) vowed to challenge the legality of an assessors board’s delay in affirming the plant site’s tax-exempt status. 

JDA officials today also asked Chairman Mary Ellen Anton of the Morgan County Board of Tax Assessors to schedule another meeting to affirm the tax status of the publicly-owned site after a Wednesday meeting did not meet the requirements of the Georgia Open Meetings Act and one member had a "clear conflict that clouds his ability to make an unbiased legal decision about this matter."

Keith Wilson of Morgan, Land, Sky & Water Preservation Inc. (MLSWP) on Thursday said in a Facebook post the group had hired an unnamed "litigator" who will "work in concert” with the environmental law-focused Stack & Associates law firm it hired in January to represent it.

"While we cannot disclose strategy please know that the legal team is working diligently on our behalf and MLSWP is pleased to make this announcement," Wilson said. "Together they will address the harm done to our community by the state and the JDA."  

Wilson, who is seeking election to the Morgan County Commission this year, said the JDA and Gov. Brian Kemp "have inflicted anguish on the citizens in the communities surrounding the proposed Rivian site."  

"There has been surprise and shock, fear of the unknown, the inability to learn the facts and details, and the anticipation of an opportunity to have their voices heard at rezoning hearings," Wilson said.  

He said Kemp and state Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson "blindsided them before their voices could be heard by taking the project away from the local level and shielding it from local decisions” by making the state government the landowner.

As a result, the state government is not required to go through the zoning processes that city and county governments oversee.

”Gov. Kemp denied these communities their right to have a voice, a valuable constitutionally granted right in Georgia, so it appears that an expanded legal strategy must begin," Wilson wrote in a post on Facebook.  

The announcement followed two days of action by the JDA to finalize an economic development agreement with the state and Rivian Tuesday; and to gain the Morgan County Board of Tax Assessors' Wednesday certification of a lease plan that was part of the agreement and states the publicly-owned land would not be taxable.

Under the agreement, Georgia state government will acquire the land from the JDA and lease it to Rivian — which is planning a $5 billion production and research facility on 2,000 acres in Walton and Morgan counties. 

The state government, like other public entities in Georgia, does not pay property taxes on land it owns.

However, the agreement spelled out the amount the company will give in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) which could total $300 million over 25 years and be shared between the JDA's four counties.

Newton will receive more than $90 million of the total because it has about a 32% share of any taxes received from business parks the JDA operates.

With the mostly anti-Rivian crowd in attendance urging them on — and against the advice of County Attorney Christian Henry — tax assessors board members voted to delay action, or table, the request from the JDA for the board’s certification the land will not be subject to taxation, the Morgan County Citizen reported.

One audience member, Jeanne Dufort, complained about the plan not giving Morgan County enough money to cover what she said would be the public costs of the Rivian project's overall impact.

Board member John Artz, husband of Rivian opponent JoEllen Artz, also urged the other members Wednesday to table the request because it differed from previous requests for determination of tax-exempt status for projects like Facebook’s data centers which were on industrially-zoned land in the original Stanton Springs business park south of the Rivian site.

But Henry said the board was exceeding its authority by considering the merits of the entire Rivian deal rather than only checking if the rental agreement was tax-exempt, the Citizen newspaper reported.

Afterward, JDA spokesman Ben Sheidler said any action taken was moot anyway and another meeting was needed because the Wednesday gathering in Madison did not meet the requirements of the state's open meetings law.

JDA attorney Andrea Gray sent a letter today, April 29, to Anton stating that another meeting was needed because the Wednesday meeting was not properly advertised and an agenda was not provided as required under the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

The letter also said John Artz had a conflict of interest when considering any Rivian-related requests because of his relation to JoEllen Artz, Sheidler said.

John Artz’s abilities to fairly assess the JDA’s request Wednesday were “clouded” because of the conflict, Sheidler said.

"Clearly Mr. John Artz is opposed to this project based on his statements and behavior (Wednesday)," said a JDA statement released today. 

"Unfortunately, his behavior created an intimidating atmosphere for other board members by empowering unruly disruption by many of his companions from the opposition group. Even though the meeting was not valid, his actions prevented the Board from even considering the substance of the matter before them. 

"While we respect the right to oppose the project, the Board should still be allowed to debate and act on the people's business. Because of this bias, and his wife’s leadership role with the opposition group, there is a clear conflict that clouds his ability to make an unbiased legal decision about this matter. 

"We think this clear conflict should be taken into consideration by the Board prior to the rescheduled meeting."

Sheidler also said the "sole point of decision for the Tax Assessor Board is a determination, consistent with the numerous other projects, that the rental agreement between the JDA and Rivian is not subject to taxation."

“We expect this project will continue to move forward as planned. We look forward to providing additional information and engaging with the Morgan County Board of Tax Assessors prior to the next meeting to make sure they have what they need to acknowledge this bond structure, which is consistent with previous developments they have approved.” 

He said the same board approved the same financial structure for the Baymare project in Stanton Springs South, which was a $42 billion bond issuance with a 20-year tax exempt status, in 2021.  

“Morgan County has approved this arrangement for numerous other projects outside of Stanton Springs as well,” Sheidler said. “Like the other projects, Rivian will be required to make payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments, which will be shared by the community.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This version has been updated from an earlier version with new information.