City of Decatur leaders anxious about status of Legacy Park annexation billThe former United Methodist Children's Home campus in Decatur. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
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Annexing the former United Methodist Children’s Home property into the city of Decatur wasn’t supposed to be complicated or controversial.
But with the Legislature expected to wrap up on April 2, Senate Bill 89, a bill to bring the 77-acre property — now called Legacy Park — and connecting parcels into the city limits, appears stuck. If the old UMCH property is not annexed into city limits, DeKalb County will be responsible for providing services to it.
There’s another wrinkle to this story. Several of the cottages at Legacy Park will temporarily house families from the Swanton Heights apartment complex while that development undergoes renovation by the Decatur Housing Authority. Doug Faust, Executive Director of the DHA, said the plan is to have 10 families on the Legacy Park property at any given time as Swanton Heights is redeveloped.
Senate Bill 53, which awaits the governor’s signature, would make school annexations separate from municipal ones, meaning they would need to be approved in a separate referendum. Decatur Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said if the Legacy Park property isn’t annexed, it will mean students from Swanton Heights relocated to the old UMCH property are technically in the county school district. If the property is annexed, but if the Decatur annexation bill is signed after the governor signs Senate Bill 53, the city of Decatur could be stuck with the same problem.
Powers was frustrated that the Decatur annexation bill was not already on its way to the governor’s desk for signature.
“We didn’t think going into this that we’d get any push back or frustration, and it’s been nothing but,” Powers said. “We’ve been back to the capitol 10 times this session.”
Mayor Patti Garrett attended a DeKalb County delegation meeting on Monday, March 25, but the Decatur annexation bill was taken off the agenda. Garrett expects there will be some action on the bill this Wednesday, March 27.
Garrett said the county is not opposed to the annexation.
“They understand the need for the property to be in the city of Decatur,” she said.
So what’s the hold up?
“I can’t say that I have a good answer to that,” Garrett said. ” … Several members of that committee [considering the bill] were also on the ethics bill committee and I know that took a lot of time and energy.”
State Rep. Vernon Jones, D-Lithonia, has also raised objections to the bill, complicating its path through the Legislature. Jones has said he is frustrated with the annexation process in general.
“His view in general about annexation in DeKalb County is he thinks it should go back to the county making those decisions,” Garrett said. “He doesn’t think a legislative process should be involved.”
A message left with Jones on Monday, March 25, was not returned.
Powers said if the bill does not pass or if it passes and is signed after Senate Bill 53, the county and City Schools of Decatur School district would have to work out an agreement about who would be responsible for educating the students living at Swanton Heights who have been relocated to Legacy Park.
Superintendent David Dude said it’s something the School Board will discuss if it’s needed.
“There are no reasons that I know of that we would not accommodate the students, but, like I said, we have not discussed it,” Dude said in an email.
Powers said in addition to the students, failing to annex the property into Decatur would make it hard for the city to move forward with implementing its plans for Legacy Park.
“It would affect the city’s ability moving forward in our planning process,” Powers said. “To have to start this process next year is completely unacceptable.”
It also may be unavoidable if the bill doesn’t make it out of the current Legislative session.
“We are down to the wire, as they say,” Mayor Garrett said.
State Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale, the chair of the delegation, said Monday she didn’t know whether the bill would win approval before the close of the session or if it would be signed before Senate Bill 53 is.
“It’s just going through the process,” Drenner said. “It’s been in committee. We still have a bunch more days left. You know how things happen at the last minute. Predicting what goes on down here, I need a better crystal ball.”