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Cityhood supporters and foes find a rare patch of common ground

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

Cityhood supporters and foes find a rare patch of common ground

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.
DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

This story has been updated. 

DeKalb Strong, a group formed in response to the process of creating new cities in DeKalb County, will become the public face of the opposition to the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills.

Meanwhile, LaVista Hills and Tucker supporters are planning to rally support ahead of the November cityhood referendum.

While that might look like a clear line dividing the two camps, there is agreement between LaVista Hills Chairman Allen Venet and DeKalb Strong President Marjorie Snook. Both say the state Legislature needs to reexamine its current cityhood and annexation processes.

“I think the General Assembly is starting to realize they need to try and restore some sanity to this process before it gets worse,” Snook said. “I think it’s made them realize this is not an issue of DeKalb. We have a broken cityhood process in the state of Georgia.”

Venet said that even though his cityhood movement was the beneficiary of the current process, it’s still a flawed process.

“The legislature handles annexations along one path, and handles city proposals along a different path and it was not easy for anyone to get those paths coordinated because those paths don’t currently meet the way the Legislature is organized,” Venet said.

State Sen. Elena Parent said in an email to constituents that there is currently a plan to reexamine the “broken and unfair process” of annexation and cityhood.

“I was able to pass a Resolution to create a Senate Study Committee that will recommend formalizing this process,” she wrote. “This committee, I hope, will bring all the key players to the table for an honest discussion on how creating cities, and annexing unincorporated areas can be transparent and fair to those that want it and those that don’t.”

State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver said the House passed a similar proposal.

Several key conflicts emerged during the recent debate over the incorporation process.

Which comes first: Annexation or cityhood? 

A plan to annex Druid Hills, including Emory University, into the City of Atlanta illustrated one major procedural flaw. Parts of the map promoted by a group called Together in Atlanta overlapped with a plan put forward by LaVista Hills.

Cityhood bills are introduced as general legislation, which does not require approval of the majority of the county’s legislative delegation. If a cityhood bill was local legislation, it would require the consent of nine of DeKalb’s 16 House delegation members and four of seven DeKalb County Senators to move forward. Annexation bills are considered local legislation.

New cities have been vehemently opposed by Democrats that control the delegations of some Atlanta counties. To get around this, when the Republicans took control of the Legislature they changed the rules so that city legislation could be general legislation. This is why Sandy Springs finally formed in 2005 after decades of trying to become a city. But annexation has remained local legislation. That conflict came to a head this year as multiple existing cities pursued annexation plans as Tucker and LaVista Hills pursued their cityhood bills.

Also, cityhood bills work on a shorter time table, having to pass one chamber of the General Assembly by Crossover Day. Annexation bills are not bound by Crossover Day rules which means the process of passing those bills could take longer.

Annexation bills for Decatur, Avondale Estates and Atlanta all failed this year.

Too many methods? 

While there is only one method for forming a new city, via referendum, there are four different ways to annex property into a new city. One method is by a petition. LaVista Hills learned this firsthand when Brookhaven used the petition method to annex Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Executive Park into its city limits before the start of the 2015 Legislative session. Both had been in the LaVista Hills map.

Annexing property by referendum is also has been targeted for reform. During the session, state Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta, introduced a bill that would change the process for annexation referendums. Currently only people in the area to-be annexed have a right to vote under the state law. Beskin’s legislation would change the rules so people in both the existing cities and the proposed areas to be annexed would get a chance to vote. The Legislation died this year.

Flexible rules

The Legislative process for moving forward with cityhood bill is largely dependent on rules established by the General Assembly. But the Legislature bent those rules to allow Tucker and LaVista Hills to move forward. Specifically, the two cityhood movements were not required to have a completed feasibility study for their proposals to move forward. A feasibility study would show whether the city could generate enough tax revenue to provide services to residents.

While both had completed these studies during the 2014 Legislative session, the maps changed. LaVista Hills was a combination of two previous cityhood movements: Briarcliff and Lakeside. The LaVista Hills map and Tucker maps both split commercial property each wanted. When both cities were approved, neither had an updated study reflecting the new maps.

Meanwhile, two other proposed cities – Greenhaven and Stonecrest – were not successful at making it through the Legislature this year. Both completed feasibility studies.

Both Greenhaven and Stonecrest have a population that is over 90 percent black. While there are no updated studies for Tucker and LaVista Hills yet, data from prior studies and Census data suggest that both will be majority white cities.

An Atlanta Journal Constitution article says that LaVista Hills’ population would be 57 percent white, 18 percent black, 16 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian. Tucker’s population would be 49 percent white, 34 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian, the AJC story says. To read the full story, click here.

The 2015 General Assembly was more flexible with the rules for proposed majority white cities than it was with majority black cities.

Kathryn Rice, chairperson of the group behind Greenhaven cityhood, avoided mentioning race while commenting on the apparent double standard during an email summarizing the 2015 session.

“We found the legislative process for cityhood to be a challenge,”  she wrote. “The rules were not consistent and we found that exceptions were made for some but not others. We at (Concerned Citizens for Cityhood of South DeKalb) believe that we complied with all the requirements; however, there were legislators that interpreted the rules differently from us. Sometimes it was frustrating when there seemed to be blatant exceptions to the rules for some proposed cities while narrowly adhering to their rules for others (like Greenhaven).”

More input needed

Toward the end of the 2015 session the LaVista Hills map was altered so that it now takes in parts of the Mason Mill and Medlock Park neighborhoods. Those changes caught residents of those neighborhoods by surprise.

The arbitrary, indifferent nature of the current process can be harmful, Snook said.

“We are not opposed to the idea of any new cities in DeKalb but we are opposed to these new cities,” Snook said. “We clearly know that the boundaries are haphazard and ill-thought out …They do a lot of damage to existing communities. We feel that in general, the cityhood process needs to be a lot more careful, a lot more thought out and invite more public input.”

Venet said there’s a compelling argument for approving LaVista Hills cityhood this year. He also sees the benefit of reexamining the process.

“The short answer is yes,” Venet said. “The long answer is the existing laws have worked and we are proceeding under the law as it is. Would it be good if the Legislature and the laws had a better way of coordinating, for example annexation plans and city plans? Well certainly, yes.”