Fearing personal liability, group drops chicken plant lawsuit against Walker County, Georgia

Fearing personal liability, group drops chicken plant lawsuit against Walker County, Georgia

June 7th, 2018 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Downtown on Main Street, Blackwell Smith, right, longtime resident and business owner in Walker County, speaks about not wanting a Pilgrims Pride chicken plant in McLemore Cove Thursday outside the 1591 Broad Street plant in Chattanooga. Lizzie Caldwell, left, stands with the protest of the plant. Smith represents the McLemore Cove Preservation Society.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Fearing a counter lawsuit, McLemore Cove Preservation Society members dropped a complaint against the Walker County, Georgia, government this week.

Blackwell Smith, longtime resident and business owner in Walker County, does not want a Pilgrims Pride chicken plant in built McLemore Cove. Smith and others made their thoughts known along West Main Street Thursday across from the Broad Street plant in downtown Chattanooga. Danae Sweeton, right, was there "for the animals of the cove," she said.

Blackwell Smith, longtime resident and business owner in...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Blackwell Smith, a cove resident and member of the preservation society, said he was informed by Walker County Economic and Community Development Director Robert Wardlaw last week that the local government planned to sue him and other members of the society. The group has protested for about two months against a chicken processing plant opening in the Kensington community where they live.

Members of the society said the county planned to sue seven people. The group met Monday and voted to dismiss its own lawsuit, 5-2.

"Some people don't mind getting sued," Smith told the Times Free Press on Wednesday. "I'd just as soon not. I'd have to hire legal representation."

Paul Almeter and Stephanie Everett, who are members of the preservation society, confirmed that Smith told them the county was going to take them to court individually. They both voted to drop the case against the local government.

County spokesman Joe Legge said Wardlaw never threatened to sue the members. At the same time, Legge said such a move would make sense — in theory.

Walker County Economic and Community Development Chair Robert Wardlaw

Walker County Economic and Community Development Chair Robert...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

"A countersuit is a natural expectation," he said. "It is one of those things to be expected when you file a frivolous lawsuit against the county."

The preservation society is a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent unwanted development in the scenic community. It was formed in the mid-1990s, after residents of the cove successfully protested Oglethorpe Power's proposal to put a pumped storage plant on the side of Lookout Mountain. With the support of some county officials, the proposal called for Oglethorpe Power to build a reservoir in the cove that the company estimated would displace 30 families.

On April 26, preservation society members met to discuss Pilgrim's Pride putting a chicken processing plant in one of the cove's abandoned mills. Members of the community spoke out against the potential business at two county commission meetings in May and protested outside a Pilgrim's Pride plant on Chattanooga's Southside on May 30. The group filed a complaint for injunction on May 23, asking a Walker County Superior Court judge to block Pilgrim's Pride from opening a plant in the cove.

In the complaint, the residents argued such a plant would be a nuisance to the community. They said it would be loud, bring big trucks to their narrow country roads and deliver nasty odors to their front yards.

Walker County public relations director Joe Legge records video on an overlook near the site of the planned Canyon Ridge Resort on Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Rising Fawn, Ga.

Walker County public relations director Joe Legge records...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Public debate about the possibility has been one-sided. A Pilgrim's Pride spokesman has said for months that the company has not made any decision about its Chattanooga plant. Wardlaw and Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said they can't speak about any potential new business. In theory, if they were in negotiations with Pilgrim's Pride, they would sign a non-disclosure agreement.

On May 24, the day after the preservation society filed its lawsuit, Whitfield said the move was "petty, theatrical nonsense" in a video he released on the county's Facebook page.

"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," he said. "This group will try every trick in the book to discourage, vilify, mislead and smear us as we carefully evaluate growth opportunities."

On Wednesday morning, after he learned the society planned to dismiss its lawsuit, Whitfield said in a statement, "By working together to achieve our common goal, we enhance our appeal to prospective partners around the world and present our community in a positive light."

Wardlaw met with members of the preservation society for about 1-1/2 hours on May 29 and spoke on the phone with Smith multiple times. Wardlaw did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday. But Smith described their conversations as cordial.

Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has expressed frustration with the McLemore Cove Preservation Society after the non-profit sued the county last week. He believes the group's efforts will hinder business deals and cost residents new jobs.

Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has expressed frustration...

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

He said he always expected the county to countersue the preservation society, and he expected to drop the lawsuit as soon as Whitfield and Wardlaw bit back. The lawsuit's purpose, he said, was simply to get attention.

"We never, as a group, were going to take this all the way," he said.

Other residents in the cove do not have the same taste in their mouths. During the May 29 meeting, Almeter said Wardlaw made reference to a potential lawsuit against individual members of the preservation society. The meeting felt cold to him.

"We were basically bullied," he said.

George Rogers, another cove resident, said Wardlaw told the group he worried they were threatening business development throughout the county. If prospective companies heard residents had sued the local government over a business deal, those companies may not bother with Walker County anymore.

"I don't think the county really wants to take any action," Rogers said. "I don't know if [Wardlaw] would have. But you know how this stuff goes. It's 'Who's going to blink first?'"

There was another issue for the preservation society. Although registered as a nonprofit, the group was no longer incorporated. Smith said they failed to file the proper paperwork over the years.

That scared some residents in the cove. When they filed the lawsuit, they did not know there were problems with the nonprofit's registration. They figured any countersuit would not personally touch them.

Ruth Almeter speaks alongside Blackwell Smith, longtime resident and business owner in Walker County, about not wanting a Pilgrims Pride chicken plant in McLemore Cove Thursday outside the 1591 Broad Street plant in Chattanooga.

Ruth Almeter speaks alongside Blackwell Smith, longtime resident...

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

"They're going after your house, your assets, everything you have," Almeter said.

Everett said she is working with a couple of botanists to identify any areas of the cove that must be protected from potential environmental damage. She also hopes for help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Smith and other members of the preservation society, meanwhile, said they want to put pressure on Pilgrim's Pride through a public relations campaign going forward. They want to make the company uncomfortable if it tries to move to their community.

McLemore Cove is on the National Register of Historic Places, located about 10 miles south of Chickamauga and 10 miles west of LaFayette. The Cherokee lived there until 1838, and the Union and Confederacy fought a Civil War battle there.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.