Lawsuit is no game of chicken: Fearing foul fowl, Cove residents taking Walker County to court

Feathers are being ruffled as questions and accusations fly back and forth between residents living in the Kensington area and Walker County officials.

At question is the possibility of a poultry slaughterhouse and processing plant setting up operations in a Barwick-Archer carpet mill that has been vacant for about 30 years.

“Our family has lived in McLemore Cover for 100 years, said Stephanie Everett during a May 24 commissioner’s meeting. “We’ve farmed and protected the land. We absolutely do not want a company like Pilgrim’s Pride in Walker County.”

Rumors of Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the nation's largest poultry producers, coming to the area were first heard last fall but have recently generated a sense of urgency to act by those calling the Cove home. Some residents say that is because Pilgrims’ Pride has an option to purchase the property from Drennon Cruthfield, its current owner, which expires at the end of May.

Because of rumors about the possibility of a slaughterhouse opening in their community, the non-profit McLemore Cove Preservation Society hired attorney Nathan Lock to take legal action to stop — or at least slow — whatever is being considered for the Cove.

“This is one of those things where if there is smoke there probably is fire,” the attorney from the Dalton-based firm of McCamy, Phillips, Tuggle & Fordham said. “My clients have filled me in on the rumors. A big part of the lawsuit is to find out what is actually being considered for the site.”

Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has publicly described as “foolish” and “frivolous” the lawsuit filed May 23 in Superior Court that names Pilgrim’s Pride and Walker County as defendants. He also, in a video posted on the county website, questioned the non-profit group’s motivation in bringing a “senseless” suit against those who are working to bring industry to the financially strapped county.

Whitfield also found it damning that county residents were filing a lawsuit against themselves and that taxpayers would have to defend.

That notion was not lost on Paul Almeter, who is a relative new comer to the Cove, and whose wife heads the Preservation Society.

“We’re paying your lawyer and we’re paying our lawyer,” he said.

The commissioner claims that efforts to block whatever is being considered for the site could hurt efforts to attract any and all industry to consider operating in Walker County.

“Economic development is tough,” Lock said. “We are not here to pick on a business or a government that is trying to bring jobs. We want something that will benefit the county, not having it sell its soul and affect the quality of life.”

This is not the first time that, in its heyday the world’s largest carpet mill, has been pitched as deserving of county assistance in making the former brownfield site attractive to modern industry. Crutchfield has used the complex, which once had nearly 1 million square feet under roof, as a carpet warehouse for the likes of Shaw and Mohawk.

In 2012, then commissioner Bebe Heiskell announced a lease being signed that would bring a bottled water facility to the site. At the time there was some dispute about the company mentioned, SunRae, as it also operated waste management and recycling facilities. Nothing ever developed, actions never followed words.

In all instances, then and now, there is no dispute that the property is privately owned and the county would have no power to control the sale or leasing of the Barwick site.

As Robert Wardlaw, who represents the county on the Walker County Development Authority, told those attending the commissioner’s meeting that while the standard non-disclosure agreement prevents revealing details, tax abatements are not now being considered for the site.

Lock said the law provides protection for businesses that are in negotiations, “So filing this motion is to find out what is really being considered. Ownership is not an issue — usage is.”

Whitfield, in his video rebuke, chides the suit as blocking a chance to bring “good paying jobs” to the county.

The lawsuit notes that Pilgrim’s Pride has a less than stellar record, with its Chattanooga plant being noted as one of the 10 worst slaughterhouses in the nation, as measured by federal citations, and last November settled a suit in Florida for its dumping of wastewater into the Sewanee River.

And a lengthy Bloombreg.com article published last December carries a subhead “cleanup at the slaughterhouse is as dangerous as it is repulsive” and goes on to detail how immigrant workers, mentioning those in Georgia and Alabama, toil in conditions that violate stated company protocols.

While the preservation group could fight plans to allow such a meat processing plant in the area, that is not being questioned. What is being asked is for public disclosure of how the county might be asked to subsidize any such operation, either by tax incentives or by providing other benefits.

Tax abatements, forgiving property taxes for a set number of years, are not the only tools used to sweeten a development deal. Examples in nearby Catoosa County include the development authority investing $4.5 million to buy and do site preparation for Costco, money that was repaid by sales tax revenue collected from that retailer. In that instance, Costco’s sales exceeded predictions and the indebtedness was retired sooner than expected. Another Catoosa investment involves installation of a traffic signal on Battlefield Parkway at the entrance to Ross, Marshall’s and Buffalo Wild Wings. The developer guaranteed that if sales tax revenue within a set time frame met the county’s cost for installation of a light, he would pay the difference.

While tax abatements are a major factor in the development of the McLemore Resort atop Lookout Mountain, reviving a factory on state Highway 341 could make costly infrastructure improvements necessary. Water and sewer service might require upgrades as could the highway itself. In addition, parts of the plant are possibly contaminated from previous tenants and from a fire that razed part of the plant.

There are many unknowns.

“There is no question that the public would be interested in the tax issue,” Lock said. “But our position strictly revolves on the intended use, to show the reasonable likelihood that the use of a property would be a detriment.”

That is something those opposed to Pilgrim’s Pride opening a plant in their backyard see as key to their concerns. The major points of their complaint are that a slaughterhouse would result in “the emanation of unbearable odors, noise, increased traffic patterns, pollution, and diminished aesthetics and diminished property values for nearby landowners.”

The county has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, as does Pilgrim’s Pride, and after that, the Preservation Society will answer the defendants’ responses. It probably will be autumn, at the earliest, before the matter could go to court.

For those opposed to the county’s involvement, it is a fight to the finish.

“I planned on living, dying and having my ashes scattered there,” said Rick Owens, a 32-year resident of the Cove. “With NDAs we have no say until the deal is done — we’re lost.”

Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga. He can be reached at the Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at moneal@npco.com.