“The folks suing all of us are doing so with full awareness that we are in a financial distress and will be forced to use your tax dollars to defend this kind of petty, theatrical nonsense”
LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield on Thursday fired back at members of a local preservation society over a lawsuit concerning a prospective business deal.
"This lawsuit and public relations smear campaign are designed to prevent our ability to attract great-paying jobs and generate new tax revenues to benefit all our citizens," Whitfield said in a video on the county's Facebook page Thursday afternoon. "This group will try every trick in the book to discourage, vilify, mislead and smear us as we carefully evaluate growth opportunities. They are working off rumors, not facts. And you know how rumors are: They never are accurate."
The McLemore Cove Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization representing residents in the Kensington community, filed a complaint for injunction against the local government in Walker County Superior Court on Wednesday. Some residents in the community, located in a historic district where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet, believe Whitfield is in discussion with Pilgrim's Pride about opening a chicken plant in their community.
In the lawsuit, residents allege a chicken plant in the cove would create a nuisance, bringing heavy traffic, the noise of factory work and foul smells into their community. They argue it will lower their property values, and they asked a judge to block any potential deal. The residents allege the county is offering tax incentives to Pilgrim's Pride.
Whitfield and Economic and Community Development Director Robert Wardlaw have not commented on any deal or said whether one exists at all. Both say they sign nondisclosure agreements when they negotiate with any potential business, meaning they can't confirm or deny any such plans. (The preservation society's lawyer, Nathan Lock, says the group can now request information on a pending deal through discovery in the lawsuit.)
In his Facebook video, shot with quick, close-up cuts as he spoke in front of American and Georgia state flags, Whitfield said the lawsuit filed this week could chill developments in the community.
"The folks suing all of us are doing so with full awareness that we are in a financial distress and will be forced to use your tax dollars to defend this kind of petty, theatrical nonsense," he said. "If you know any of these individuals that are members of this once-proud preservation society, please encourage them to join all of us in creating long-term sustainable solutions to the common needs."
He added: "It is infuriating that the people that just say 'no, no, no' are often the same people that enjoy prosperity in a free-market economy somewhere else, then move to Walker County and expect us to sit idle and not worry about our own prosperity."
About an hour after posting the video, Whitfield hosted a commissioner's meeting. He did not add any further comments on the lawsuit, though several residents from the Kensington community spoke against the alleged deal.
Rick Owens criticized the nondisclosure agreement, which he thinks blocks neighbors like him from making educated protests until it's too late.
"Once y'all done the deal, we lost," Owens said.
Wardlaw responded with a general defense of such agreements. He said they are just part of the business recruitment game. If a business wants a tax incentive, only the county's development authority can approve it. It will have to vote on that deal during a public meeting, eventually.
"This happens in every city, every county, every state in the United States every day on almost every single economic deal that happens," Wardlaw said.
A spokesman for Pilgrim's Pride has told the Times Free Press the company does "not comment on rumor or speculation."
Paul Almeter, who moved to the cove earlier this year, responded to one particular critique that Whitfield made — that the preservation society's lawsuit against the county could cost taxpayers. Almeter argued that was a sign of how desperate the group is to keep out a chicken plant.
"Shoot, we're paying double," he said. "We're paying our hard-earned money to hire this lawyer to file the lawsuit. We're paying for your lawyer with our taxpayer. We're paying twice. We don't want this. We don't want to pay lawyers. We don't want Pilgrim's Pride in the cove."
His wife, Ruth Almeter, the preservation society's president, told Whitfield and Wardlaw they can cut down on any talk about killing a way of life in the community if they simply make a promise: They won't allow a big plant to open in Kensington.
"A lot of this could have maybe been avoided if we had a blanket statement from our elected officials about protecting the cove," she said.
"You're not going to hear a lot of blanket statements from me about subjective matters," Wardlaw said. " What I will say is that never are we going to present for approval any company that's going to do harm to our county."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.