Thursday, March 12, 2015

Court Testimony: US Nitrogen Site Picked By Local Leaders

By Walter F. Roche Jr.

The controversial site of the new US Nitrogen plant was not picked by company officials but by local development officials who came up with an alternative to the firm's original plan.
The site selection, according to a 44-page deposition filed this week in court, was made by officials of the Greene County Partnership along with local officials and business leaders, according to testimony by Thomas R. Ferguson who heads the non-profit partnership, that played a key part in assembling the project properties.
A transcript of the deposition was one of several documents filed this week in Greene County Chancery Court following a recent hearing in a suit brought by local landowners opposed to the project.
In addition to the deposition, the local residents filed a motion for Chancery Judge Douglas T. Jenkins to amend orders he issued following a Monday hearing in his courtroom.
Setting the stage for a likely appeal, Greeneville attorney Herbert Moncier laid out a series of charges by the local opponents including that local officials "withheld material facts" from the Greene County Planners Committee prior to a favorable vote on the project.
He also repeated charges that the public was not given adequate notice of key details of the project, including the identity of the company, US Nitrogen.
Citing conflicting testimony between Ferguson and state and county planners, the new filings charge that actions were taken in violation of state open meetings statutes. Moncier also charged that the partnership violated state real estate law by negotiating options with landowners even though neither it or Ferguson had a real estate license.
He also asked the judge to allow him to enter into evidence a series of documents he had previously submitted prior to this week's hearings but were rejected because of a missed deadline.
The Ferguson deposition, which was taken on Feb. 9, 2012, details the original contacts between local officials and US Nitrogen representatives.
Under questioning, Ferguson said that the company, through a representative named Allen Wood, presented a proposed site in Greene County in July of 2010. Details on the location of that original site were not disclosed.
"Ironically, the property that Allen (Wood) sent...wasn't the property that's in question today," Ferguson said. "I told Allen, I said we've got another site that might be more suitable."
He said that US Nitrogen officials "liked the idea of owning a large piece of property. They just, they just like to have their privacy."
Ferguson stated that eventually an agency agreement was reached under which the partnership itself would purchase options on the designated parcels without disclosing the ultimate owner. Asked if there was ever any public record of the agreement between US Nitrogen and the partnership, Ferguson said there wasn't.
Ferguson testified that a key meeting between local officials and US Nitrogen representatives occurred on Oct. 26, 2010. By that time, he said, the partnership already had options on two key parcels. According to Ferguson, local businessman Jerry Fortner became involved at that meeting because of his "tremendous knowledge about who the property owners were. One of then was, as a matter of fact, the guy that owns his company (C & C Millwright)."
By mid-November of 2010, Ferguson continued, the partnership had obtained options on all the properties. That was three months before the first public disclosure of US Nitrogen's identity.
Asked why there was no public disclosure, Ferguson said,"I mean the whole process, the business we're in on economic development requires a tremendous amount of confidentiality. Many times we have to sign confidentiality agreements just to have a phone conversation."
Later he testified that a similar process was used  earlier when a Wal-Mart facility was considering locating in the county. The effort was successful.
Attorneys for the US Nitrogen project opponents also questioned Ferguson closely about what information he provided to state and local planning officials about the US Nitrogen proposal.
"I totally revealed everything to her and the state planner, so they knew exactly what we were talking about," he said.
Moncier has contested that assertion and had requested to depose Ferguson again based on other deposition testimony, but the request was denied.
 Ferguson also was questioned about the involvement in the project of state government officials including Gov. Bill Haslam, who was on hand for the first public announcement that US Nitrogen was coming to Greene County.
Ferguson said local businessman Scott Niswonger contacted the governor and that US Nitrogen's attorneys from the Nashville firm of Waller Lansden "worked directly" with then Commissioner William Haggerty, head of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

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