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‘Murky territory’ – Cityhood solution raises more questions than it answers

Annexation, new cities Avondale Estates Decatur Kirkwood and East Lake Metro ATL

‘Murky territory’ – Cityhood solution raises more questions than it answers

A map that settles the border dispute between the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills was unveiled on Dec. 19. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
A map that settles the border dispute between the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills was unveiled on Dec. 19. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

A map that settles the border dispute between the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills was unveiled on Dec. 19. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

This story has been updated. 

A panel of legislators on Dec. 19 answered one question about the creation of new cities in DeKalb County, but also left many issues unresolved.

To be fair, the processes behind annexation and incorporation weren’t within the panel’s purview. The five legislators appointed by the House Governmental Affairs Committee were there to settle a key boundary dispute between two proposed cities: Tucker and LaVista Hills. The panel, voting 3-1, approved a map that divides the Northlake Mall area between the two proposed cities.

“This boundary is set in stone,” said Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville. “We think that this boundary should be left alone. That said, we understand both city proposals are dealing with annexations. We would ask you deal with those situations as best you can.”

What is the difference between annexation and incorporation? 

There are two competing processes at work here. The groups that want to form new cities want to create entirely new governments from unincorporated areas of DeKalb County. Existing cities, like Atlanta, Decatur and Avondale Estates, are considering proposals to annex these unincorporated areas before they become part of a new city.

The compromise between Tucker and LaVista Hills puts LaVista Hills supporters at an apparent disadvantage. While Tucker’s boundaries are more or less settled, LaVista Hills supporters are still competing with an annexation proposal put forth by Together in Atlanta, a group of residents of the Druid Hills neighborhood. That group wants the schools in the Druid Hills neighborhood to become part of the Atlanta Public School system. The annexation would also encompass Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control.

Michelle Penkava, with Tucker 2015, said in an emailed statement, “For Tucker this has always been about community. As we begin the healing process across the entire area, our thoughts are with many of our neighbors who are facing the tough reality that they are no longer in the Tucker map. We appreciate the Committee’s efforts and are ready to forge ahead to stand up a strong City of Tucker.”

The map the panel approved on Dec. 19 also didn’t take into account the recent annexations of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Executive Park by Brookhaven.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said there were, “Good faith negotiations going on, on the western  border” between LaVista Hills and Together in Atlanta.

“Our border today does not resolve all matters,” Oliver said.

What are the implications?

Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, cast the only “no” vote, saying the panel’s work sets a “dangerous precedent” because it circumvents the traditional two-year process for creating cities. Mosby noted that other cityhood movements, like a proposed City of South DeKalb and Stonecrest, will want to know if their proposals can move forward in 2015, too.

“I guess the issue is, who do you exclude out of this process,” Mosby said. “Why do these two get preferential treatment? So, if cities had been on the table at the same time these two cities came forward during the General Assembly, then should they also get the same preferential treatment? Then once we go down that road, the city of (South DeKalb) do they get the same preferential treatment? At what point do we stop this? Or, do we change the process? Or let it go back to home rule like it used to be where the local delegation is working stuff out?”

What Mosby is referring to is that unlike annexation, creating new cities is handled as general legislation and not local legislation. As general legislation, cityhood bills require no signatures from other delegation members. But annexation bills are local legislation, which requires signatures of nine of 16 DeKalb House members, four of seven DeKalb County Senators to move forward.

Does the math work? 

There’s another important difference between annexation and cityhood. Groups seeking to form cities must obtain a feasibility study in the first year and push for cityhood in the second year. In this particular instance, the House Governmental Affairs Committee waived the two-year rule so LaVista Hills and Tucker could move forward in 2015.

This was partially because LaVista Hills was initially two competing cityhood movements: Briarcliff and Lakeside, each of which had a feasibility study, as did Tucker. The three competing cityhood bills got jammed up in the 2014 session and none of them made it out of the General Assembly.

Rep. Oliver told Decaturish that the waiving of the two year rule was appropriate in this case.

“I do believe that the two- year process has a validity,” Oliver said. “The fact that LaVista Hills and Tucker have been in it for over two years, though, is relevant. There will be inconsistencies as always in our application of rules and in this case for Tucker and LaVista I think it was a fair deviation from the two year rule, if things go well as we move forward.”

That includes both Tucker and LaVista obtaining a new feasibility study that reflects the compromise maps. Before Lakeside and Briarcliff formed LaVista Hills, each had raised and spent $30,000 for a feasibility study. Now LaVista Hills will likely pay an additional $20,000 for a feasibility study, according to Co-chair Allen Venet said. They’ll also have to come to an agreement with Together in Atlanta on the western border first, or the study won’t mean much.

“That is another very real challenge,” Venet said. “While we have supporters, we don’t have the money.”

LaVista Hills Co-chair Mary Kay Woodworth said negotiations with Together in Atlanta continue.

“I’m anticipating we’ll be able to do (that) within a week and a half and two weeks,” Woodworth said.

Where does this leave annexation? 

The panel didn’t specifically address annexation proposals. Decatur recently adopted its annexation master plan to present to the legislative delegation. Avondale Estates will consider approving its plan next month.

Rep. Oliver said if Decatur asks her to introduce an annexation bill, she will.

“If Decatur asks me to, and they believe that they have enough votes to get forward, I’m prepared to help Decatur in whatever way they want me to,” Oliver said.

Brockway said he’s not sure what the panel’s decision means for other proposals on the table.

“I think we need to take a hard look at this whole process of how cities are formed, how annexations take place,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way than what we’re seeing now.”

Some communities didn’t make it into anyone’s cityhood or annexation map. One prime example of this is Medlock Park, with its 1,400 homes.

The Medlock community has been left out of Decatur’s map because the city said it would place too much of a burden on its school system.

Woodworth said Medlock has an open invitation to join LaVista Hills.

Where does this leave the schools? 

One of the main reasons the annexation proposals are moving forward is dissatisfaction with DeKalb County Schools. One question that comes up often is what happens to the public schools if Tucker and LaVista Hills become cities. Tucker and LaVista would still remain part of DeKalb County Schools. Creating any new school system would require changing the constitution which is a higher hurdle, legislatively speaking, than creating a new city.

But Together in Atlanta wants to leave DeKalb County and join an existing system, Atlanta Public Schools.

DeKalb County Schools’ rejection of a petition to create a Druid Hills Charter Cluster led to the formation of Together in Atlanta. Together in Atlanta’s proposal would separate Briar Vista and Fernbank Elementary schools, as well as Druid Hills High, away from the other schools that feed into it.

The proposal raises questions both legal and practical.

In terms of practicality, what happens to students attending schools in Avondale Estates and other parts of unincorporated DeKalb? Do they get to finish at Druid Hills High or will they have to attend another high school in DeKalb County?

On the legal side of the ball: What happens to ownership those schools? Do they automatically become part of Atlanta Public Schools? What about the debt DeKalb Schools incurred to renovate those schools? Does DeKalb County keep that debt while losing the buildings to Atlanta?

Rep. Mosby predicted the legal issues will take some time to sift through.

Decaturish asked Mosby if some of this could’ve been avoided if DeKalb County Schools had been more receptive to the charter cluster idea.

“I think … that Druid Hills probably should’ve done a better job in selling that around the county, in what it is they’re trying to do,” Mosby said. “There are a lot of people who believe this is white flight, and you come back and find out the cluster is 18 percent white and 72 percent other, or 82 percent other.”

What happens now? 

The panel made it clear that their sole focus was settling the boundary. Cityhood bills will need to be feasible. They’ll need to find a sponsor in the General Assembly. The bills will need to be passed and signed by the governor. Then the voters will get a chance to vote on these issues in a referendum.

During the Dec. 19 hearing, panel members recommended that any cityhood referendum should wait until the fall of 2015. Given the complexity of the issues and amount of back and forth between the various competing movements, it will take a lot of time for a voter to soak it all in before making a decision.

But what does this mean for the creation of new cities going forward? That’s the lingering question that will be the legacy of DeKalb’s cityhood debate.

“We are in murky territory,” Brockway said. “During the last session, this was so muddled between these two proposals, I think we need to not let this happen again. Nothing can stop two cities from proposing and trying to have the same area, but I think we’ve got to figure out, and I don’t have any answers, but we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with this on the front end so we don’t wind up where we’re at, where we’re having to bend rules. We can’t let this be a precedent.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the state representative whose district includes Medlock Park. The representative for Medlock is state Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur.