A requirement by Rayonier that Bryan County sign an arbitration clause in order to use county employees to dig dirt from the company’s land rankled members of the Bryan County Board of Commissioners, but in the end the board voted 3-2 to enter into the agreement.
The decision took place after nearly 30 minutes of debate at a Monday night called meeting at the County Administrative Complex in South Bryan.
It also may have illuminated friction in the relationship between the giant paper company, which still owns land where the Belfast Commerce Centre is located, and Bryan County officials, who need about 660 truckloads of dirt to keep a promise made to Caesarstone Technologies to build a road into the industrial park.
“So far we have been very good partners with Caesarstone. I agree our partnership with Rayonier, it could be better,” Bryan County Administrator Ray Pittman said at one point, though he also repeatedly noted the requirement from Rayonier wasn’t unusual.
“It’s just the corporate nature and the legal nature of the world we live in,” he said. “This is a standard practice for Rayonier. It’s standard practice for very large corporations.”
Still, commissioners expressed varying degrees of discomfort over the arbitration clause, which would put any disputes between the county and Rayonier before an arbitration panel in Florida.
The county’s other option is to use dirt from its own borrow pit. Because no money is exchanging hands, the possibility of a dispute between the county and Rayonier is remote, county attorney John Harvey conceded.
Still, Harvey cautioned commissioners against signing the agreement.
“Counties butt heads with big companies over this all the time,” Harvey said. “You talk to county attorneys across the state (and they recommend against it) … we’d give up our right to have any dispute resolved here in front of a Bryan County judge and Bryan County jury.
“I agree (a dispute in this instance) is pretty remote, but what I’m concerned with is we’re going to be doing business with Rayonier in the future and it’s setting a precedent.”
History also was a concern. Bryan County lost an arbitration hearing in 2001 over a dispute with Yates Paving that ended up costing it more than $430,000.
That apparently was part of the reason Commissioner Jimmy Henderson voted against the measure. Commissioner Wade Price was also against the agreement with Rayonier.
“I’d say haul it (the dirt) out of our pit,” Henderson told commissioners. “It’s already been stated that in binding arbitration we’ve been handed our butts one time.”
He also grumbled about the company’s proposed contract, noting the company “(came) up with 40 pages of contract to haul half an acre of dirt.”
Commissioner Noah Covington, who along with commissioners Carter Infinger and Steve Myers voted in favor of signing the agreement with Rayonier, didn’t sound entirely convinced it was a good idea.
Covington questioned the cost of arbitration in Florida, should it come to that.
“The way they’ve (Rayonier) played the game, we don’t play the same way,” he said.
Infinger suggested the county let Rayonier know in writing it wouldn’t sign such agreements in future — which Myers noted was practically standard operating procedure in big business.
“I’ve been in business a long time and every contract I’ve signed the last 10-15 years with big clients, there’s always been an arbitration clause,” Myers said. “The elephant who has the gold makes the rule. The question is, ‘Do we want to deal with the guy who has the gold and makes the rules or not?’
“This is a pretty small issue, but if we want to take a stand on this issue then let’s take it. Or do we want to push this down the road to when it’s something that really matters? I’d like to see the road get in there as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
County officials said using the Rayonier site will save the county’s dirt for other projects. It will also end the county’s commitment to Caesarstone and the industrial park, which was annexed by Richmond Hill late in 2013.
The DOT will provide both the asphalt and paving for the road, which will serve as the entry point into the industrial park.
And both Myers and county commission Chairman Jimmy Burnsed said Rayonier has already made significant investments to both the Belfast Commerce Centre and the planned I-95 interchange, including the spending of more than $3 million to bring water and sewer to the industrial park.
As for the dirt, county officials estimated they need roughly 10,000 cubic yards to finish their work on the road, or 667 loads.
“If we had to purchase the dirt, the rate is about $20 per load, so we’re looking at somewhere around $15,000 just for the dirt,” Pittman said.
Instead, the county will get the dirt for free.
Pittman also urged commissioners to look at the big picture.
“Caesarstone itself is coming here — it’s a miracle it’s here,” Pittman said. “That’s an investment between $70 (million) and $100 million into our economy and 180 employees we didn’t have before.”
The road, called Belfast Commerce Centre Drive, is supposed to be completed in May. Work has been held up over the contract agreement, Pittman said.