Passive, aggressive – Atlanta’s annexation approach

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt November 20, 2014
Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan and Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education Member Matt Westmoreland speak during a meeting on annexation hosted by the Laurel Ridge Shamrock Civic Association. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan and Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education Member Matt Westmoreland speak during a meeting on annexation hosted by the Laurel Ridge Shamrock Civic Association. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Look, Atlanta’s not waving some flag in favor of annexation, Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan said.

But they’re not going to say “no,” either.

That’s the gist of Wan’s responses about annexation during a Nov. 19 community meeting in the Laurel Ridge Shamrock neighborhood. Wan and District 3 Atlanta Board of Education Member Matt Westmoreland spoke at University Heights Methodist Church.

“We welcome any communities that want to do it, but they’ve got to organize and make the statement,” Wan told Decaturish after the meeting.

Laurel Ridge Shamrock currently is in the map for a proposed city of LaVista Hills. If it stays in that map, kids in the neighborhood will stay in the DeKalb County Schools system. But their neighbors down the road in Druid Hills might be going into Atlanta and joining Atlanta Public Schools. The map proposed by Together in Atlanta encompasses the neighborhoods of Druid Hills and North Druid Hills. If Druid Hills does move into Atlanta, it will be taking Druid Hills High, Briar Vista Elementary and Fernbank Elementary.

They’d be leaving behind other schools in the Druid Hills cluster, like Druid Hills Middle and Laurel Ridge Elementary. Where would those kids go to high school if Druid Hills High joins APS? That’s the same question Avondale Estates residents are starting to ask, too. Avondale Estates is zoned to Druid Hills High, too. Also, does Laurel Ridge have to stay in the LaVista Hills map?

There’s currently a survey floating around the neighborhood that asks residents whether they prefer staying in the LaVista Hills map, remaining in unincorporated DeKalb, or annexing into Atlanta.

It’s a fine month for surveys. Medlock, one of the few neighborhoods that didn’t find itself in anybody’s map, recently completed one. Those results showed residents were partial to Decatur and joining a new city, but the sentiment wasn’t strong enough to form a clear mandate for the Neighborhood Association.

The Druid Hills Civic Association, not to be confused with the Together in Atlanta folks who are hewing to the attendance zones for the schools, recently released the initial results of its survey. It found that 47 percent of respondents “strongly disagreed” with joining a new city.

Druid Hills was more sharply divided on annexing into Atlanta. According to the results, 28 percent of respondents strongly agree with the idea, while 28 percent strongly disagree.

Of course, Druid Hills includes Emory University. It’s widely assumed that Emory wants to be in Atlanta, and because it’s almost right smack in the middle of Druid Hills, Druid Hills will be going along, too. Emory gets what Emory wants, the logic goes.

And what’s Emory’s take on this?

Emory’s not getting involved with the annexation debate. Not yet, at least.

When Decaturish asked, the university released a statement saying, “Currently the University is monitoring various jurisdictional proposals. We are hopeful that the evaluation process will be transparent and fair, so that we and our neighbors can weigh the best alternatives.”

The Laurel Ridge Shamrock Civic Association recently reached out to Charlie Harmon, Emory’s VP of Government and Community Affairs. He emailed a response similar to the one Emory sent us. Then Laurel Ridge called him on his cell phone.

The summary of that conversation, published on the Laurel Ridge website, offers more of a glimpse into the thinking among Emory officials.

The conversation was short and he reiterated these three points several times:

1. That Emory was sensitive to neighborhoods surrounding them and not pushing anyone in any direction.

2. That the cityhood movements should have maps that are transparent, along with a transparent process, so that all are able to see what is taking place.

3. Emory wants to keep all aspects of its campus together in one municipality and not in several municipalities.

Mr. Harman also said that the statement that was made at the Laurel Ridge Elementary Town Hall about Emory was inaccurate. He stated that Emory is not driving any talks for annexation, and that this was being pushed by Druid Hills. He was asked if Emory would go to Atlanta if Druid Hills decided that was the course that they wanted to take and (he said) that yes, but they would need to keep ALL aspects of their campus in one municipality.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recently gave the Together in Atlanta annexation plan his endorsement. But saying he supports it is one thing. The mayor gave no impression that he’s going to campaign for the annexation.

But he’s not saying he’s against it either.

The nodding and winking by Atlanta officials makes the current annexation waltz between Avondale Estates and Decatur look even more conspicuous.

Commercial property owners near Rio Circle have done everything short of throwing themselves at the city of Decatur, petitioning to bring their tax revenue producing real estate into Decatur’s city limits. Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett continues publicly brushing off the petition, deferring to an unofficial agreement to honor Avondale’s annexation map. It’s a map that the Rio Circle property owners and some residents of other neighborhoods don’t want to be a part of.

The Together in Atlanta Map overlaps with property on Decatur’s western border that’s in Decatur’s annexation plan. Like Brookhaven, a city with leaders who don’t have any hangups about considering an annexation of Executive Park even though it’s in the LaVista Hills Map, Atlanta leaders aren’t turning brushing off Together in Atlanta. Some of Together in Atlanta’s map is in the LaVista Hills map, too.

Decaturish asked Wan if he was aware that Together in Atlanta’s plan overlaps with Decatur’s?

“This is all community driven,” Wan said. ” … If the community speaks and this is what they want, then I think that speaks volumes.”

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of

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  • TJ_M

    Thank you for digging in to clarify Emory’s official position, Dan. This is a very important piece of data in this discussion we’re having. We’ve already seen at least one of these neighborhood groups asserting that Emory is in harmony with their objectives.

    Everyone would be wise to take the Emory statement at face value. My observation has been that the university has always understood, over the years, it can be the big gorilla in the room, and has tried to stay above the fray when these sort of discussions between neighbors break out. Furthermore, we’re talking about the neighborhoods where so many of the Emory faculty and staff live. These decisions affecting the schools will impact how desirable the university might be as a workplace.

    I will, however, go further and speculate that these days Emory is even more motivated than ever not to take sides. That is because of the Clifton corridor mass transit/light rail initiative, which is crucial to the long term viability of Emory and the CDC. That project is going to one day require substantial buy-in from the various Emory neighborhoods.

    Taken in that light, there really is no need to speculate that Emory is saying something publicly that differs from what it privately believes is in its best strategic interests.

    • Mike

      But which municipality/city do you think has the best chance of “helping” Emory succeed in obtaining funding for the Clifton corridor mass transit/light rail project?

      • TJ_M

        The MARTA board is tripartite. I’m hard pressed to imagine how cooperative DeKalb would be about the Clifton Corridor initiative after Atlanta swoops in and annexes an employment center in the county that is greater than that of downtown Atlanta. So in answer to your question, it seems to me that DeKalb holds some significant cards.

        • Mike

          Very good point I had not previously thought about. Thanks for pointing it out. Status quo does indeed sound best for them.

    • Lee

      Jeeez. You were expecting straight talk from Emory! Come on. They don’t want the bad publicity of trying to influence political action in public. But they do it every day non-publicly. Do you honestly think that Emory doesn’t care, and will live with the will of the people? They’re out there every day talking to the Mayor and legislators. They’re not going to tell you that!

      • TJ_M

        Pre-TSPLOST failure, for over a decade, the light rail proposal was from Lindbergh to Emory/CDC. Post-TSPLOST failure, just last month, the light rail proposal is suddenly from Lindbergh to Avondale Estates. Since local matching funds will have to pay for this project, I would infer from this new proposal that the insiders you allude to at Emory have done the math and concluded that the City of Atlanta alone can’t deliver this, nor DeKalb alone. They’ve probably determined that the status quo is in their best interests, because anything else risks a set back to the transit plans. Just my opinion, one based on facts and evidence rather than innuendo.

  • angel

    Thank you for following up on this story. The situation is vague, confusing and occasionally blindsiding to those of us involved. It’s nice to be the one holding all the cards, unfortunately it seems only a small group is doing that (roughly 28%?) and that has left the rest of us scrambling to figure out what is going on.

    In my opinion this annexation proposal has the ability to shake up the Dekalb community more than anything else (yes, even the La Vista Hills). By removing Druid Hills HS from Dekalb the ripple effect of redistricting, property values, and school attendance will have a huge impact on the entire area. 1000 kids have to go to high school somewhere. I don’t know of a single school nearby that has room.

  • lifelong DeKalbite

    I live in Sagamore Hills and I have noticed most of the cityhood signs are disappearing. I am not sure if they are being raked up with the leaves or if maybe our neighbors are having second thoughts about Lavista Hills. Hope it is the latter.

  • Hans Utz

    Always enjoy the Decaturish posts and the commentary. It seems your readers are well informed, no doubt due to the balanced coverage and lack of sensationalism in your article. Atlanta Councilmember Wan’s comments should be taken at face value: Atlanta will support whatever the community wants. We do not seek to throw our weight around and force an outcome: this is an incredibly important and complex decision that must be made by the residents. We intend to be good neighbors and support the decision of the community.

    • Thanks, Hans. The biggest thing I’m trying to do is avoid waving a banner for any one movement and/or plan. Boosterism isn’t going to help people make an intelligent decision about this stuff. I find all proposals to be equally complicated.

  • Tom Doolittle

    In addition to Emory–because of its size and pivotal location, the Northlake business district is also a “big gorilla”, to use TJ_M’s term. In other words, its eventual dispensation affects city lines. Like Emory, Northlake business leadership is sensitive to politics. It recognizes it has no vote, but has asserted a voice. It cites no “preferences” in cityhood mapping–between city proposals or whether to stay unincorporated….but does have a position (several).

    The difference has been historically the area had no official voice. The voice today, altho not “official” is the newly formed North/Tucker CID and its more focused counterpart, Northlake Business Association (NBA). NBA established a position and has deliverd the message to cityhood proponent groups, legislators and anyone who asks, including me:
    (1) We (they) take no position on what city they are included in
    (2) Foremost mapping consideration: City maps should not divide the business district. (citing a supposed previous “negotiated” map division along Lavista Road)
    (3) Secondarily, the only boundary guideline they “offer” if there as to be one is at I-285.

    These conditions are mostly met by LaVista Hills map and wholley met by Tucker’s. The area inside the Perimeter isn’t split by either map. However, the two maps still disagree primarily with respect to I-285.
    (Tucker “assumes”–consumes–all of the district, ITP and OTP)
    (Lavista Hills splits the district at I-285–and assumes ITP)

    There are of course other competing issues between Lavista Hills and Tucker, but the point to this comment was to explain Northlake’s voice, pivotal role and “no preference” position (like Emory’s, but with considerably less “juice”)

    • Lee

      if Woodworth and Millar is involved, you can be sure that nothing good is going to come of this. I just wish there was a Mayoral candidate for however this comes out. If Woodworth (or Levitas) is going to be the only Mayor option, vote NO!

  • Terry

    Dan, thank you for providing local coverage that has been sorely missing. As a Tucker resident, I appreciate the opportunity to follow what is going on in other communities also impacted by the massive City of Lavista Hills encroachment. The Tucker perspective is very similar to what our neighbors inside 285 are experiencing – longtime neighborhoods being permanently divided. It was incredibly disappointing that the statement issued by the leadership of Lakeside/Briarcliff/LaVista Hills implied that Tucker did not accept requests to attend negotiation sessions and did not offer concessions. The truth is that Tucker 2015 representatives attended multiple negotiation sessions with these folks, and ALL sides offered concessions. The biggest challenge we have in the Tucker community is the question, ‘Which of your neighbors would you sacrifice?” Unlike a map that is being drawn and changed constantly to include some in and some out, Tucker has a community of neighborhoods that have always been connected. Any decisions mean many long-time neighbors and friends will be removed from the Tucker community they call home. Having looked into the eyes of many people and heard their strong desire to remain in the place they choose to make their home, I can only imagine the incredible difficulty the Tucker 2015 representatives had in those negotiation sessions. For Tucker this is not about drawing lines on a piece of paper – it’s about the impact on people we know and care about deeply, and the irreversible changes that will be made on our community. As someone said to me at a recent neighborhood meeting, it’s like having your wallet stolen and then negotiating with the thief to see how much of your money you can get back. If the City of LaVista Hills succeeds with it’s current map, 20,000 people who live outside the perimeter in areas of Tucker will be drawn into the outskirts of a city centered miles away across an interstate.

    • notapunk

      I’m really pretty tired of the “poor me” Tucker line, especially when the Tucker wannabe-something people are encroaching on areas that want nothing to do with Tucker. If Tucker really cared about Tucker, it would worry about the areas that are traditionally Tucker. And for that, you should check that Tucker CDP and the map that the TCA used before this brouhaha started. THAT’S your “more than 100 year old thriving community”– not the BS that’s being foisted upon us all now.

  • Tom Doolittle

    I was at the Laurel Ridge annexation meeting. Incredibly interesting. These guys take nothing for granted by simply having an opporunity to keep charter cluster schools together. They brought up the fact that the schools will be “system” schools and no one knows how Atlanta would treat a cluster.

    There are numerous questions from Druid Hills (and Laurel) PARENTS about how the transfer would be handled between Dekalb and Atlanta…and its not just about the school property. Things like “will our teachers go into the Atlanta staff pool and possibly be reassigned? Will they all be hired?

    Big one! Will Alanta’s overflow students from other high schools be TRANSFERRED to Druid Hills??????

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