GADSDEN, Ala. (WIAT) — An Etowah County judge has granted a temporary injunction that prevents the city of Gadsden from issuing a building permit for a proposed chicken rendering plant that many neighbors have opposed for months.
Since November 2020, residents in and around Gadsden have been fighting to stop Pilgrim’s Pride from constructing a plant that would convert chicken parts into protein used for pet food.
The proposed site is on a piece of property near the airport, several homes, businesses, at least one church and a school.
The project has been recruited to the area by several groups, including the state of Alabama and the Etowah Industrial Development Authority.
Despite the outcry from individuals, businesses, and neighboring municipalities, city leaders have continued to entertain the proposal for the plant.
“Pilgrim’s Pride on April 12 issued a construction bid saying construction would start on August 1 of 2021 and so when we received that is when we requested a preliminary injunction from the court that said hey we need an immediate ruling to stop this,” said Christie Knowles, an attorney who represents several plaintiffs in the ongoing litigation.
Etowah County Circuit Judge George Day issued the preliminary injunction late Monday night after several court hearings over the past few weeks.
Nearby property owners argued that irreparable harm would come to families living near the site if action was not taken by the court.
Despite proponents’ claims that the ongoing recruitment efforts were preliminary and in ‘due diligence,’ very few obstacles remained in the city’s way.
“We were able to clearly prove that this was not just a hypothetical, that Pilgrim’s Pride, the city, and the IDA were at the end of process,” said Knowles.
While initial concerns centered around foul odors, truck traffic and spills, environmental impacts, and the effect on the important airport, many citizens felt like recruitment efforts were shielded from the public.
“I think that the way this has been done under the cover of night, the way that the will of the people and their own zoning laws have attempted to be voided in every way, forcing the people of Etowah County to go to court, it is unfortunate,” said Knowles.
Gadsden Mayor Sherman Guyton, the IDA and others have argued that non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality agreements prohibit them from sharing certain details of the project.
Neighbors wonder what would have happened if the issue had not gone to court.
“It’s been a nightmare to be honest because you wax and wain between, do you just sit and let these things play themselves out and what more can you do?” said Teresa Drummond-Rieger, who lives near the property line of the proposed site.
In Day’s ruling, he wrote:
“It appears to the Court that but for certain unanticipated impediments which have arisen (including this litigation), it is likely that Pilgrim’s Pride already would have broken ground at the subject property.”Etowah County Circuit Judge George Day
Further in the ruling, Day also wrote the following:
“This Court has no doubt that had the Plaintiffs sat idly by, and simply watched the growing crescendo of visible activity reasonably calculated to culminate in rendering plant operations, and had they first filed this lawsuit and sought an injunction after ground was broken, or perhaps after the first truckload of cargo destined for the plant rolled down Steele Station Road, the Defendants’ very first contention would be that the Plaintiffs were equitably “estopped” from then raising such protests for the first time, because they had done nothing as the stage was visibly set and as the injury slowly but surely manifested itself.”Etowah County Circuit Judge George Day
More than just zoning?
The current property is zoned as I-1, for light industry. Knowles and plaintiffs argue that the operations of the plant would more properly be zoned as I-2 for heavy industrial use.
If a judge does not grant a permanent injunction, there is concern that efforts could be made to rezone the property to I-2.
Any rezoning would require input from the planning and zoning commission and a public hearing before going to the Gadsden City Council for final approval.
There are seven members on the council. A mayor could vote to break any tie.
Knowles and other citizens are calling on Gadsden City Council members to listen to the growing cries to stop the plant from locating in the area.
“I’ve been here 28 years and put every penny that I’ve made I’ve put into making this place what I was hoping it would be when I retire,” said Drummond-Rieger.
Drummond-Rieger has had to put a pause on her plans to transform part of her property into an event venue. She’s concerned about her goals if the plant is constructed.
Without a lot of vocal support for the plant, she’s wondering why Pilgrim’s Pride continues to push the issue.
“I hope that they’re looking at this and saying, you know, let’s just move on, you don’t have to move on that far down the road, but move on. There are places that they would not get opposition that they would, potentially, even embrace the fact that they are there for the jobs that they would bring,” said Drummond-Rieger.
Neighbors have previously said they understand the need for a rendering plant with the increase consumption of poultry. Residents do not believe the Gadsden area is a good fit.
While zoning is a major part of the issue, Judge Day also wrote in his ruling:
“A timely pleaded claim of nuisance (pursuant to Beavers v. County of Walker, 645 So.2d 1365 (Ala. 1994), or otherwise) will be considered by the Court at the final hearing in this case. No preliminary injunction is issued at this time against the Gadsden Airport Authority, but the issue of whether a permanent injunction will issue likewise will be considered at the final hearing.”Etowah County Circuit Judge George Day
The Federal Aviation Administration is also still expected to play a role. Some have worried about the impact of the plant on wildlife, including the attraction of birds that could be a hazard for aircraft using the airport.
Until the final hearing, Knowles said her team will be in the discovery and deposition process to gather more details about the plans.
In Day’s ruling, he clarified that the temporary injunction could only be issued if:
A. That without the injunction the party would suffer irreparable injury;Etowah County Circuit Judge George Day
B. That the party has no adequate remedy at law;
C. That the party has at least a reasonable chance of success on the ultimate merits;
D. That the hardship imposed on the party opposing the preliminary injunction by the injunction would not unreasonably outweigh the benefit accruing to the party seeking the injunction.
Economic developers have sought to replace jobs lost after the closing of Gadsden’s Goodyear plant. Judge Day also addressed that issue in his ruling.
“This court is mindful of the economic setback visited upon Etowah County and this area by the closure of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, a corporate citizen for some century. From hearing the testimony and reviewing the exhibits admitted into evidence, the Court also is mindful of well-intentioned and diligent efforts by a number of officials in this county, charged with recruitment and expansion of industry, to seek to mitigate against the loss suffered; however, diligence in the attainment of that unquestionably worthy goal must be measured against the rights and interests of citizens who live, own property, and do business in this county, and those who administer and attend the churches and schools here.”Etowah County Circuit Judge George Day
Day signed the order June 7 and set a trial date for July 23.
Pilgrim’s Pride, Etowah IDA, and the City of Gadsden all declined to make statements for this report, citing pending litigation.
In previous interviews IDA leaders said the project would add around 100 jobs and a $70 million investment in the community. In past stories, Pilgrim’s Pride said new technology would keep any odors within the facility.
Residents from a South Carolina town told CBS 42 that it fought a similar rendering plant operated by another company, but that they had been ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the outcome.
You can read the full order from the judge below.