A long-running lawsuit over the value of the land on which Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama plant is located has been settled. The Montgomery Industrial Development Board will pay former landowners $3.45 million to settle their claims. The particulars of the case illustrate the potential hazards faced by advocacy groups when they attempt to incentivize industrial development.
According to the story in the Montgomery Advertiser, the nearly decade-long lawsuit came to a head last November, when a jury awarded the plaintiffs $4.87 million in damages. The plaintiffs are a group of landowners whose acres were purchased by the Industrial Development Board (IDB) for the development of the Hyundai plant. The IDB is a quasi-public body whose members are appointed by the Montgomery City Council. In Alabama, these development boards are the bodies through which industrial incentive money is typically disbursed.
The landowners initially agreed to accept a price of $4,500 an acre for their land after negotiations with the IDB. This price was structured as part of an “option” deal: the land would only be purchased if it was found to be absolutely necessary to construct the plant. A conflict arose when a lone holdout, realizing the value of their position, negotiated a price of $12,000 an acre. This triggered a lawsuit by the other landowners, who had a clause in their contracts forbidding any one owner to receive more compensation than another. After a lengthy procession through the courts, the IDB has agreed to a settlement rather than prolonging the case. It’s still unclear where the money to pay for the settlement will come from. The Board’s website lists land sales, member fees, and certificates of deposit as some of the ways that it raises revenue; it’s also empowered to issue bonds, under the terms of state law.
There’s no question that Hyundai’s arrival has been a major boon to Montgomery, and to Alabama in general. The state and local government incentives offered to the company were instrumental in getting the new plant built. Even so, this lawsuit attests to the fact that incentive packages often carry hidden costs, especially in the legal arena. Caught between the promises made to Hyundai and the need to fairly compensate landowners, the Board got stuck in a bad negotiating position. Now it will have to cough up much more money than originally planned.