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Questions, confusion cloud annexation idea

Annexation, new cities Avondale Estates Decatur

Questions, confusion cloud annexation idea

Ed Rieker

This story has been updated. 

A plan to annex the Forrest Hills neighborhood into the city of Avondale Estates is taking some residents in both communities by surprise.

There also may be more options for annexation than most Forrest Hills residents realize.

Communities in north DeKalb County are pursuing their own cities. The perception is that by the end of next year’s legislative session almost all of DeKalb County will be incorporated and this might be the last chance for cities to expand their boundaries.

In Forrest Hills, the conversation is haunted by the possibility of residents being stuck with DeKalb County’s government if they don’t join Avondale.

While many in the neighborhood are under the impression that joining Decatur is not an option, three City Commissioners say they’re willing to at least listen to Forrest Hill residents who want to join the city. City Commissioners recently have approved annexation petitions from other neighborhoods.

“We’re an open city,” Commissioner Scott Drake said. “We’ll listen to anyone.”

Commissioner Fred Boykin agreed.

“I’m always open to hear what anybody has to say,” Boykin said. “If somebody presented a petition, I don’t think any of us would ever turn it down out of hand.”

Commissioner Patti Garrett said “there are a lot of moving pieces” to the annexation question and said until this point Forrest Hills hasn’t been interested in being a part of any city.

“I do think we have a lot of things to take into consideration and it is heavy residential, but to say if they brought a petition forward that we would just in hand sort of dismiss it, I think that’s not the way we typically work,” Garrett said. “We certainly are trying to do this with everybody’s needs considered, but also kind of looking at it as a really big picture.”

A lack of transparency

There’s a troubling lack of openness about Avondale’s annexation plans, according some residents of Forrest Hills and the city of Avondale.

While Decatur’s City Commission has discussed its annexation plans at length in public meetings, the Avondale Estates City Commission hasn’t held any formal discussions about this issue. There hasn’t been any mention of it in emails from the city, Avondale’s primary means of communicating with residents.

Avondale Mayor Ed Rieker has been the main point of contact for Forrest Hills residents. He attends meetings with the neighborhood by himself, with no other city officials present.  Rieker briefly discussed the annexation issue April after someone asked a question during public comments at a City Commission meeting. He hasn’t spoken to this publication about any issue since months, saying he is unhappy with our coverage related to an April 12 fire.

In addition to Forrest Hills, Rieker has also been speaking to residents living on Katie Kerr Drive.

Emails have been flying back and forth all weekend among Avondale and Forrest Hills residents. According to the emails, many people affected by this decision didn’t know about an annexation bill state Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale, introduced in this year’s legislative session. If the bill had passed, it would’ve called for a vote on a proposed annexation map that included Forrest Hills.

Rieker spoke to Forrest Hills residents in April and told them that annexation was “ultimately (their) decision,” according to minutes of the meeting posted to the Forrest Hills website. While Drenner’s bill would’ve given residents a chance to vote, Rieker didn’t mention the bill, according to the minutes. Nicole Fiber, who is a member of a group of Forrest Hills residents calling themselves “Not so Sure About Annexation,” said many people only recently learned about Drenner’s bill. She wondered why Rieker didn’t bring it up during the meeting with the neighborhood back in April.

“This was after they already tried to pass this bill without ever asking us,” Fiber said. “That raises some red flags and questions regarding his honesty and transparency in this process.”

The 60 percent method

Some residents of Forrest Hills have decided to pursue annexation into Avondale by petitioning commissioners directly, meaning that residents wouldn’t get to vote. This process is known as the “60 percent method.”  The annexation law requires petitioners to get the signatures representing 60 percent of land owners and registered voters. The City Commission then votes on the petition.

Some neighborhoods recently have used this method to join Decatur, most notably the Parkwood annexation, which added 75 homes to the city.

Forrest Hills has about 250 homes. Stephen Smith, who is heading up the pro-annexation group, said members have reached out to Parkwood for advice. He said that the group is pursuing the 60 percent route because even if Drenner does reintroduce the bill, “There are never guarantees.”

So why would Forrest Hills be able to file a similar petition with Decatur?

The Forrest Hills residents in favor of annexation groups say that Decatur isn’t accepting petitions for annexation at the moment, but the information they’ve sent residents is outdated. While Decatur did temporarily halt accepting petitions, in August City Manager Peggy Merriss asked neighborhoods interested in joining the city to file petitions. Those petitions will be considered as the city updates its annexation master plan, which the commission will consider adopting in early November.

Decaturish asked Merriss and Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett about whether Forrest Hills can file an annexation petition with the city of Decatur. Both Merriss and Baskett responded by saying that Forrest Hills is not part of the city’s current master plan.

“I wouldn’t encourage them to petition as they are not a part of our master plan,” Mayor Jim Baskett said.

Parkwood was in the original master plan, but the city also is updating that plan right now and inviting other neighborhoods to submit petitions through mid-October. So if the city is updating it and seeking more petitions, why wouldn’t Forrest Hills residents be able to submit a petition? Merriss said it’s not a possibility because Avondale officials already included the neighborhood in its annexation plans, though many residents of both communities weren’t aware that was the case.

“The Forrest Hills neighborhood is part of the annexation plan for the City of Avondale Estates and as such, they are already included in an annexation plan,” Merriss said.

After this story was first published, a reader contacted Decaturish with a question about whether Forrest Hills shares enough of a boundary with Decatur to petition using the 60 percent method. According to guidelines published by the Georgia Municipal Association, state law defines a “contiguous area” as “one where at least 1/8 of the external boundaries abut the municipality or would abut the municipality but for land owned by local or state governments.”

Forrest Hills describes its boundaries as N. Carter, Forrest Blvd and Columbia Dr. It’s not entirely clear whether Forrest Hills’ boundaries would meet the 1/8 requirement. In the past, there’s been discussion about annexing Forrest Hills using the 60 percent method and the 1/8 boundary rule hasn’t been mentioned as a potential issue. Merriss and Baskett did not mention the the 1/8 boundary rule in their answers to Decaturish about why Forrest Hills cannot join the city of Decatur using the 60 percent method.

Residents along Katie Kerr – adjacent to Forrest Hills – also live near the city limits of Decatur. Mayor Rieker has also met with Katie Kerr residents about annexation.. It’s not known if Katie Kerr residents also are pursuing annexation into Avondale under the 60 percent method or if those residents can be part of a 60 percent petition filed by Forrest Hills residents with the city of Decatur.

Here’s a map showing the locations of Forrest Hills and Katie Kerr and the Decatur city limits.

Decatur Katie Kerr Forrest

Listening ears

Merriss and Baskett didn’t respond to a follow-up question about whether Forrest Hills residents are actually prohibited from filing a petition with the city of Decatur. Boykin and Drake said as far as they know, any interested neighborhood can file one.

In fact, a petition could be formally presented at a City Commission meeting during public comments and it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened at a City Commission meeting. The first Decatur City Commission meeting in October will be held on Oct. 6. The meeting will start at 7:30 pm and will be held at City Hall, located at 509 North McDonough Street in Decatur. 

All meetings are open to the public. Anyone can speak directly to commissioners, without having to go through city staff first, during public comments. People who wish to speak during public comments do not have to sign up beforehand. There is no limit on the amount of time someone can speak.

While city staff will study the petition’s impact on city services, approval would ultimately be a political decision made by the city of Decatur’s five commissioners, not the city manager. Drake said the existing annexation maps can change if there’s a good reason to change them.

“If someone came to us and said we want to really be there, we would listen to them,” Drake said. “We wouldn’t be the city of Decatur if we didn’t listen to people.”

Drenner said she thought she was listening to the people when she filed her bill. She said she filed the bill after Rieker and Avondale Estates City Commissioner Lindsay Forlines visited the DeKalb legislative delegation and presented the city’s annexation plan. Drenner said Lindsay and Riker told her, “They had meetings in the community where interest was expressed to be annexed in the community.”

“I never heard from anyone that was not in favor of the bill until after the session was over,” Drenner said.

Where did this idea come from?   

The idea of joining Avondale didn’t originate within Forrest Hills, however. It came about because residents received a flyer in February from the city through a resident who had recently relocated to Forrest Hills. The flyer lists all the purported benefits of annexing into Avondale. To see that flyer, click here. The flyer also compares the impacts of joining Avondale with the city of Decatur and staying in DeKalb County. There were apparently more than two choices for Forrest Hills residents at the time the flyer was distributed.

The resident who had just moved to the neighborhood emailed her new Forrest Hills neighbors. The flyer was attached.

In her email, she wrote, “Recently a really good friend of mine who is also a commissioner in Avondale Estates sent me a flyer from their Mayor discussing the possibility of adjacent neighborhoods joining AE. Being a new resident, I have no idea if this even interests our neighborhood, but thought the information was quite intriguing.” The email doesn’t name the commissioner who sent her the flyer.

Smith, with the pro-annexation group, said that flyer prompted Forrest Hills to reach out to the city. He said Rieker has been the only Avondale city official who has attended meetings with the neighborhood. The neighborhood invited both the mayor and DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson. Johnson brought several members of the county staff with him to help answer questions. Rieker showed up by himself, Smith said.

“He was there with his iPad,” Smith said. “He answered all the questions that were asked of him.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information regarding whether Drenner plans to reintroduce the annexation bill. The information came from an interview for a story published in April. Drenner contacted Decaturish to say that the information was incorrect. Drenner said she will not reintroduce the bill unless it has community support.