Future of cityhood-annexation movement unclear after LaVista Hills defeatMelissa Montgomery (center) and Jon Fidler react as they watch poll results during the Dekalb Strong viewing party at Melton's app & tap on Tuesday. Photo: Jonathan Phillips
This story has been updated.
The proposed city of LaVista Hills failed by the slimmest of margins on Nov. 3 and its supporters aren’t in the mood for another campaign.
But the larger question is where it leaves the various proposals for annexation and cityhood in DeKalb County.
Out of nearly 14,000 votes, there were a mere 136 separating the “Yes” and “No” votes on LaVista Hills. Never say one vote doesn’t matter. Depending on how things play out over the next few weeks, those 136 voters may have ended one of the most contentious debates in the county’s history.
Members of the LaVista Hills Alliance and LaVista Hills YES, the two groups advocating for cityhood, tell Decaturish that their proposal isn’t likely to come up again.
“I can’t see bringing this up again,” LaVista Hills Alliance Chairperson Mary Kay Woodworth said. “We’re certainly getting calls and emails by the hundreds today to regroup and try it again. I think it’s somebody else’s turn to do that if that’s what folks want.”
She said the Legislature has little appetite for another session dominated by DeKalb County’s politics.
LaVista Hills YES president Allen Venet said the group has few options for contesting the outcome of Tuesday’s elections.
“A reporter told me earlier today that apparently under Georgia law if this were a race between two individuals the loser would have the right to demand a recount, but in the case of a referendum question it’s only the governor, lieutenant governor or speaker of the house,” Venet said. “Even if we have the right – I’m not the entire movement – personally I don’t think a recount would make sense. It would cost the government money. There’s no reason to believe it would come out differently.”
The proposals to create the cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills caused cities throughout DeKalb County to pursue their own annexation plans, some of which had been on the drawing board for years. The proposed cities of Stonecrest and Greenhaven in south DeKalb also gained momentum.
Tucker passed easily, but it had the advantage of having a historical sense of community. LaVista Hills was an amalgamation of the former Briarcliff and Lakeside cityhood movements.
DeKalb Strong, the group formed to oppose cityhood, cheered their victory as a grassroots movement jamming up a well-oiled political machine. DeKalb Strong President Marjorie Snook said the failure of LaVista Hills makes the possibility of other new cities less likely.
“I think it’s really going to take the wind out of their sails,” Snook said. “I think it’s possible Stonecrest could go through. I think this makes Greenhaven impossible because … there’s not been a whole lot of support for Greenhaven.”
Jason Lary, president of the Stonecrest City Alliance, was optimistic about his proposed city’s chances.
“I am sad that LaVista Hills did not pass, but I think they’ll be back to the drawing board and they’ll be on the May referendum with Stonecrest,” Lary said. “I don’t believe it’s over for them at all.”
Kathryn Rice, President of Concerned Citizens for Cityhood of South DeKalb, the group behind Greenhaven cityhood, said, “I don’t know that the results will make it more difficult for Greenhaven to pass.”
“I think that had both passed that would’ve been more favorable to us,” Rice added. “I think there are reasons why LaVista Hills didn’t pass, not just one reason. I think there are various reasons. I’d like to see who voted for it and who didn’t and where they’re located.”
A breakdown of the precinct numbers shows that the vote was split between people living inside the Perimeter and people living outside the perimeter.
This color coded map began circulating on Nov. 4. The yellow portions of it show the “No” votes while the green portions show the “Yes” votes.
Snook said the precincts with the heaviest turnout of “No” voters were around neighborhoods like Laurel Ridge and Shamrock that weren’t interested in being in LaVista Hills map but were added anyway.
“These neighborhoods didn’t change their minds,” Snook said. “These are neighborhoods that told the cityhood organizers from the beginning that they didn’t want to have a part in this.”
State Sen. Elena Parent, D- 42, said she was personally surprised by the result of the LaVista Hills referendum, given the drumbeat of DeKalb corruption news. Like Snook, she attributed the loss to neighborhoods that were included in the map whether they wanted to be in it or not.
“I think that there were people that just weren’t that interested and some of them were vocal opponents who were included in the map,” Parent said. “Laurel Ridge, I remember I was trying for a long time to get them out of the map because they did not want to be in it. I had a conversation with Mary Kay (Woodworth) who said (providing police services) becomes difficult if we don’t have the commercial on Lawrenceville Highway.”
Parent also blamed mailers sent out by the LaVista Hills group, in particular one featuring a picture of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed that “looked like race baiting.”
“It wasn’t a good calculation of the people in this area,” Parent said. “One had all kinds of typos in it. People are very educated in this area.”
Woodworth was more philosophical in her take on why LaVista Hills failed.
“It’s certainly not a mandate on either side,” she said. “I think that it’s a lot easier to fight against something and harder to try to sell an idea of a plan, an idea for change.”
She said she thinks the Lakeside cityhood proposal would’ve been successful on its own terms.
“As far as the map, if this election had happened two years ago with the map that was in place two years ago, we would’ve won handily,” she said.
Gabriel Sterling, a Sandy Springs city councilman and Republican political consultant who created some of the mailers for the LaVista Hills campaign, said the election occurred in “a tight, highly emotionalized environment.”
“Obviously it was very geographic,” Sterling said. “The Northern part of LaVista Hills was strongly in favor, through the middle it was uniformly against except for that one precinct at the very bottom.”
He added, “It was a bipartisan fight on both sides. Obviously losing by that close of an amount is a tough feeling for people who thought they were doing what was right for their community. I think the people on the ‘No’ side are being shortsighted and how they’re viewing this.”
Parent said she’s not sure what LaVista Hills’ defeat means for annexation and cityhood going forward. She said annexation into cities may occur via the petition method but might be less likely to occur at the Legislative level.
“There’s certainly going to be some talks of annexation, maybe some people moving ahead through the 60 percent (petition) method,” Parent said. “Legislative annexation could be more challenging now and cityhood efforts could be more challenging now. People may want to take a pause.”
Groups pursuing annexation have taken a pause, at least temporarily, to consider how they’ll move forward.
Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett said, “We will be assessing our plans over the next several weeks.”
Together in Atlanta, the group pursuing annexation of Druid Hills, including Emory and the Centers for Disease Control, into the city of Atlanta, is also formulating its response.
Anne Wallace, co-chair of Together in Atlanta told Decaturish, “TIA Board is meeting for a debriefing Friday at noon, so I can call you after that with a statement.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect summary of sentiments expressed by Kathryn Rice. This article has been corrected and updated with an additional quote from Rice about the LaVista Hills cityhood referendum.