Residents of Walker County community sue over rumored chicken plant

Residents of Georgia's Kensington community accused Walker County government officials of secretly "conspiring to install a large-scale chicken slaughterhouse" in their area Wednesday.

The McLemore Cove Preservation Society, a nonprofit in the rural region where Lookout and Pigeon mountains meet, filed a complaint for injunction in Walker County Superior Court. The group asked a judge to block the county and Pilgrim's Pride from opening a plant in the area.

Rumors about the company moving its Chattanooga chicken plant to Walker County have swirled for months. County officials have never confirmed they are in talks with the company. A Pilgrim's Pride spokesman has also declined to comment on the rumors.

But Nathan Locke, an attorney representing the preservation society, said his clients feel confident enough in their information to bring this case to court. They see only one other alternative: Wait until the county confirms the deal, when it's too late to stop it.

"The commissioner and everybody involved in this is hiding behind a non-disclosure agreement," Locke said. "They're not asking for any public input. That's probably what stings more than anything else. This is a big decision that affects the community."

Though the Times Free Press provided him with a copy of the contract Wednesday afternoon, County Spokesman Joe Legge said he will wait until Commissioner Shannon Whitfield receives the filing from the court to comment.

"We will respond accordingly once we have been served," Legge wrote in a statement.

Asked about the case, Pilgrim's Pride spokesman Cameron Bruett stood by a statement he emailed the Times Free Press in April: "As a corporate policy, Pilgrim's does not comment on rumor or speculation. We have made no decisions that would impact the Chattanooga facility, our team members, or our growers who support the facility."

Some residents said the plant is supposed to go inside the old Reichhold chemical plant, a 200-acre property located on South Highway 341. But the owner of the site, Drennon Crutchfield, told the Times Free Press he has not struck a deal with Pilgrim's Pride.

"They're totally wrong," he said of the rumors. "You can take that from me."

Asked if he was in contact with the company about the site, he said, "I'm not discussing anything, OK?"

In the lawsuit, Locke argues a chicken processing plant will create a nuisance in the community that will kill a way of life. McLemore Cove is secluded, with farms and large homes surrounded by hundreds of acres of empty land. It was the site of a pivotal Civil War battle.

But, residents fear, the chickens will bring the smell of poop, wafting from one secluded home to another. The plant will bring large trucks, and the large trucks will bring congested traffic. They will bring noise and pollution, too.

While the details of negotiations on any potential deal are tucked inside a non-disclosure agreement, Locke said he can demand documents through his civil court case.

During a May 10 commissioner's meeting, some residents of the community demanded information about the plant. Ruth Almeter said her family moved to Hog Jowl Road from Alexandria, Virginia, about a month ago because of the community's natural beauty.

"I just can't express how shocked I am that anyone would think it's a good idea to put that size of an operation in one of the best things Walker County has going for it," she said. " We cannot have the beautiful cove, with all its tranquility and bring the Ironman through, and then have trucks and trailers going down the road, a million miles a minute."

Walker County Economic Development Director Robert Wardlaw said he could not discuss the rumored plant. In theory, the county would have signed a non-disclosure agreement with Pilgrim's Pride, allowing representatives from both sides to negotiate a potential deal. They could talk about tax incentives and promised wages for employees, as well as how many employees they would hire. This information is exempt from public records.

Without engaging in non- disclosure agreements, he said the county has no shot to land any developments. He added that he and Whitfield can still reject an offer if they don't like what the company promises. Also, the county's development authority would approve any tax incentives at a public meeting.

"It can't be done in the cover of darkness," he said. "But this period of time, when the company and community is feeling each other out: That's what's covered in the non-disclosure. And that part, nobody's going to talk about it. Because if you do, you're done. And I can't even present you an idea that might help us if I'm sitting here talking about it and breaking a contract."

If a chicken plant came to the community, Whitfield told residents it wouldn't smell bad. He said Georgia environmental regulations demand that companies contain any foul smells from infecting a business' neighbors.

"We need you to trust us," Whitfield said. "We need people to trust us in these agreements. If there's no trust, we can't move forward."

Whitfield will hold a commissioner's meeting again at 6 p.m. today, inside the courthouse annex located at 201 S. Main St. in LaFayette.

Staff writer Myron Madden contributed to this report. Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.