Editorial: If Buckhead becomes a city, Atlanta could search for new revenue in DeKalb CountyKing Williams
King Williams is a local journalist and documentary filmmaker. He has a newsletter of his own, I Am King Williams, that covers the intersections of Atlanta to the world. He is also very vocal on Instagram and Twitter.
This column has been updated.
By King Williams, contributor
Atlanta, GA — A week ago, Atlanta chose its new mayor: Andre Dickens. And soon, the city will be once again in the crosshairs of another major decision: Buckhead cityhood.
But it’s a decision that will be made by the residents of the proposed city and their supporters in the Legislature, not the entirety of the city of Atlanta. Should the residents of Buckhead decide to leave the city of Atlanta to form a new city, what does that mean for Atlanta’s neighbors?
A new city of Buckhead would have wide-ranging implications for DeKalb County.
Should Buckhead leave the city of Atlanta, expect a series of lawsuits delaying the move. Once the dust settles, that leaves the city of Atlanta in a precarious position. The city [Atlanta] in the short term would likely have to cut back dramatically on city services, increase taxes, sell assets, and reallocate funds to APS and first responders. Buckhead provides about 40 percent of Atlanta’s revenue. The city of Atlanta will have to make up that difference. One way to make up that difference is through annexation or de-annexation from existing cities into the city of Atlanta. And neighboring DeKalb County is the most likely target for annexation.
If the city of Atlanta did decide to annex more territory, it is limited in what it could bring into the fold. Unincorporated Fulton County, unincorporated North DeKalb, and unincorporated north Clayton County would all be on the candidate list for annexation. East Point, College Park, and Hapeville would be candidates for de-annexation. In each de-annexation scenario, there are issues that would take years to finalize, which leaves South DeKalb County as the most likely target.
Due to the sheer size, the city of Atlanta can make a series of moves towards annexing unincorporated South DeKalb. Due to growth patterns, the eastward corridors of Memorial Drive, Glenwood Road, Bouldercrest, and all land towards Candler Road would be the likely targets. That would include almost half of unincorporated Decatur, Gresham Park, Ellenwood, Panthersville, Conley, Cedar Grove, and East Lake. If the city decided to expand further, as a hedge towards competing annexation proposals, it could go as far east as Scottdale and unincorporated Avondale Estates.
This would likely place Atlanta at odds with another cityhood proposal, the city of DeKalb. That’s the successor cityhood movement to the proposed city of Greenhaven, which never made it through the Legislature. The idea behind these proposals is putting the remaining 200,000+ residents of south DeKalb into a new city. That effort mirrors the successful cityhood movements of Tucker and Stonecrest, both approved by voters in 2015 and 2016.
The effort to create a city of DeKalb is at odds with a reality that south DeKalb is at a stalemate for economic development. The stalemate is more easily resolved by annexing this area into the city of Atlanta, not forming another city. But Atlanta annexing parts of DeKalb would set off a chain of events that could lead to more annexation and incorporation efforts in DeKalb County, a land grab for all the territory not yet claimed by a city. The move would likely trigger another look at creating the city of LaVista Hills, now known as Vista Grove.
The LaVista Hills cityhood proposal went further than Greenhaven by making it to the polls, only for voters to narrowly reject it. Tucker in central DeKalb would likely be the biggest player in any annexation and cityhood scramble. Key targets for Tucker could be unincorporated Briarcliff and North Decatur, in addition to the areas of the failed city of LaVista Hills. Tucker could also look at additional expansion in the northwest corridor. That move that could be a hedge against rumored expansions of Brookhaven.
The biggest problem in all of these scenarios is that it will likely need to be put to a vote. The cityhood bills would need supporters in the legislature. The state house and senate are very anti-Democrat, with a large Republican majority that is at odds with metro Atlanta. The 2020 election widened that divide. That election that tipped the state of Georgia from red to blue, at least for now. It’s no coincidence that the Buckhead cityhood bill is being supported by Republican legislators who don’t represent the city of Atlanta. Any cityhood effort in DeKalb County is likely going to need the support of several Republicans, which is a concern for the heavily blue south DeKalb County but is plausible for the redder central and northwest DeKalb.
Even if the efforts at cityhood, annexation, or de-annexation are possible, they will all likely happen in 2023 at the earliest. The most realistic scenario is this will all happen during the 2024 presidential election cycle. If any of these efforts are successful, it would defund DeKalb County at several levels including the police, fire, sanitation, roadwork, libraries, parks, and county government.
Should any of the northwest DeKalb corridor cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and rising Chamblee decide to start expanding via annexation as well, the city of Atlanta would have no real chance of annexing any more of northwest or central DeKalb, as they would already be engulfed with annexation efforts of their own.
There’s a viable option for the remaining residents of unincorporated DeKalb to take: joining the city of Atlanta. Emory and the CDC already left DeKalb for the city of Atlanta in 2017; it’s not unreasonable to think North Decatur could join Atlanta as well.
An annexation and cityhood fight would place enormous pressure on residents South DeKalb to decide their future. Atlanta still has more economic opportunity ahead of it, including massive developments like the Gulch, Atlanta BeltLine, Midtown, The Stitch, South Downtown, Castleberry, Georgia State expansion, and new South Atlanta developments. The areas of Moreland Avenue, Memorial Drive near I-20, Glenwood Road, and Bouldercrest are already seeing an influx of gentrification, renovation, and new developments for people who want to be close to the city of Atlanta. People moving there are first or second-time homebuyers, who demographically are more desirable long-term.
Should the city of Atlanta move further into DeKalb, it would likely see a tectonic shift in political representation. There would be a massive expansion on the Atlanta City Council. An expansion of this size will also lead to a reduction in countywide representation. Services, like police and fire, could change or merge for residents affected by these changes. DeKalb Could hedge against chaos through more collaborative regional planning between the city of Atlanta and the county, but that’s easier said than done.
But all of these are scenarios, scenarios that depend on a decision outside DeKalb’s and most of Atlanta’s hands. It would be wise for both DeKalb and the city of Atlanta to start seriously having these conversations now.
Clarification: An earlier version of this column said students living in the proposed city of Buckhead would still be in Atlanta Public Schools. That’s what Buckhead parents say will happen. However, APS says those students would actually be served by the Fulton County School system. This column has been updated to remove this information and this topic will be explored in depth at a later date.
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