‘Murky territory’ – Cityhood solution raises more questions than it answers

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt December 22, 2014
A map that settles the border dispute between the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills was unveiled on Dec. 19. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

A map that settles the border dispute between the proposed cities of Tucker and LaVista Hills was unveiled on Dec. 19. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

This story has been updated. 

A panel of legislators on Dec. 19 answered one question about the creation of new cities in DeKalb County, but also left many issues unresolved.

To be fair, the processes behind annexation and incorporation weren’t within the panel’s purview. The five legislators appointed by the House Governmental Affairs Committee were there to settle a key boundary dispute between two proposed cities: Tucker and LaVista Hills. The panel, voting 3-1, approved a map that divides the Northlake Mall area between the two proposed cities.

“This boundary is set in stone,” said Rep. Buzz Brockway, R-Lawrenceville. “We think that this boundary should be left alone. That said, we understand both city proposals are dealing with annexations. We would ask you deal with those situations as best you can.”

What is the difference between annexation and incorporation? 

There are two competing processes at work here. The groups that want to form new cities want to create entirely new governments from unincorporated areas of DeKalb County. Existing cities, like Atlanta, Decatur and Avondale Estates, are considering proposals to annex these unincorporated areas before they become part of a new city.

The compromise between Tucker and LaVista Hills puts LaVista Hills supporters at an apparent disadvantage. While Tucker’s boundaries are more or less settled, LaVista Hills supporters are still competing with an annexation proposal put forth by Together in Atlanta, a group of residents of the Druid Hills neighborhood. That group wants the schools in the Druid Hills neighborhood to become part of the Atlanta Public School system. The annexation would also encompass Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control.

Michelle Penkava, with Tucker 2015, said in an emailed statement, “For Tucker this has always been about community. As we begin the healing process across the entire area, our thoughts are with many of our neighbors who are facing the tough reality that they are no longer in the Tucker map. We appreciate the Committee’s efforts and are ready to forge ahead to stand up a strong City of Tucker.”

The map the panel approved on Dec. 19 also didn’t take into account the recent annexations of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Executive Park by Brookhaven.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said there were, “Good faith negotiations going on, on the western  border” between LaVista Hills and Together in Atlanta.

“Our border today does not resolve all matters,” Oliver said.

What are the implications?

Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, cast the only “no” vote, saying the panel’s work sets a “dangerous precedent” because it circumvents the traditional two-year process for creating cities. Mosby noted that other cityhood movements, like a proposed City of South DeKalb and Stonecrest, will want to know if their proposals can move forward in 2015, too.

“I guess the issue is, who do you exclude out of this process,” Mosby said. “Why do these two get preferential treatment? So, if cities had been on the table at the same time these two cities came forward during the General Assembly, then should they also get the same preferential treatment? Then once we go down that road, the city of (South DeKalb) do they get the same preferential treatment? At what point do we stop this? Or, do we change the process? Or let it go back to home rule like it used to be where the local delegation is working stuff out?”

What Mosby is referring to is that unlike annexation, creating new cities is handled as general legislation and not local legislation. As general legislation, cityhood bills require no signatures from other delegation members. But annexation bills are local legislation, which requires signatures of nine of 16 DeKalb House members, four of seven DeKalb County Senators to move forward.

Does the math work? 

There’s another important difference between annexation and cityhood. Groups seeking to form cities must obtain a feasibility study in the first year and push for cityhood in the second year. In this particular instance, the House Governmental Affairs Committee waived the two-year rule so LaVista Hills and Tucker could move forward in 2015.

This was partially because LaVista Hills was initially two competing cityhood movements: Briarcliff and Lakeside, each of which had a feasibility study, as did Tucker. The three competing cityhood bills got jammed up in the 2014 session and none of them made it out of the General Assembly.

Rep. Oliver told Decaturish that the waiving of the two year rule was appropriate in this case.

“I do believe that the two- year process has a validity,” Oliver said. “The fact that LaVista Hills and Tucker have been in it for over two years, though, is relevant. There will be inconsistencies as always in our application of rules and in this case for Tucker and LaVista I think it was a fair deviation from the two year rule, if things go well as we move forward.”

That includes both Tucker and LaVista obtaining a new feasibility study that reflects the compromise maps. Before Lakeside and Briarcliff formed LaVista Hills, each had raised and spent $30,000 for a feasibility study. Now LaVista Hills will likely pay an additional $20,000 for a feasibility study, according to Co-chair Allen Venet said. They’ll also have to come to an agreement with Together in Atlanta on the western border first, or the study won’t mean much.

“That is another very real challenge,” Venet said. “While we have supporters, we don’t have the money.”

LaVista Hills Co-chair Mary Kay Woodworth said negotiations with Together in Atlanta continue.

“I’m anticipating we’ll be able to do (that) within a week and a half and two weeks,” Woodworth said.

Where does this leave annexation? 

The panel didn’t specifically address annexation proposals. Decatur recently adopted its annexation master plan to present to the legislative delegation. Avondale Estates will consider approving its plan next month.

Rep. Oliver said if Decatur asks her to introduce an annexation bill, she will.

“If Decatur asks me to, and they believe that they have enough votes to get forward, I’m prepared to help Decatur in whatever way they want me to,” Oliver said.

Brockway said he’s not sure what the panel’s decision means for other proposals on the table.

“I think we need to take a hard look at this whole process of how cities are formed, how annexations take place,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way than what we’re seeing now.”

Some communities didn’t make it into anyone’s cityhood or annexation map. One prime example of this is Medlock Park, with its 1,400 homes.

The Medlock community has been left out of Decatur’s map because the city said it would place too much of a burden on its school system.

Woodworth said Medlock has an open invitation to join LaVista Hills.

Where does this leave the schools? 

One of the main reasons the annexation proposals are moving forward is dissatisfaction with DeKalb County Schools. One question that comes up often is what happens to the public schools if Tucker and LaVista Hills become cities. Tucker and LaVista would still remain part of DeKalb County Schools. Creating any new school system would require changing the constitution which is a higher hurdle, legislatively speaking, than creating a new city.

But Together in Atlanta wants to leave DeKalb County and join an existing system, Atlanta Public Schools.

DeKalb County Schools’ rejection of a petition to create a Druid Hills Charter Cluster led to the formation of Together in Atlanta. Together in Atlanta’s proposal would separate Briar Vista and Fernbank Elementary schools, as well as Druid Hills High, away from the other schools that feed into it.

The proposal raises questions both legal and practical.

In terms of practicality, what happens to students attending schools in Avondale Estates and other parts of unincorporated DeKalb? Do they get to finish at Druid Hills High or will they have to attend another high school in DeKalb County?

On the legal side of the ball: What happens to ownership those schools? Do they automatically become part of Atlanta Public Schools? What about the debt DeKalb Schools incurred to renovate those schools? Does DeKalb County keep that debt while losing the buildings to Atlanta?

Rep. Mosby predicted the legal issues will take some time to sift through.

Decaturish asked Mosby if some of this could’ve been avoided if DeKalb County Schools had been more receptive to the charter cluster idea.

“I think … that Druid Hills probably should’ve done a better job in selling that around the county, in what it is they’re trying to do,” Mosby said. “There are a lot of people who believe this is white flight, and you come back and find out the cluster is 18 percent white and 72 percent other, or 82 percent other.”

What happens now? 

The panel made it clear that their sole focus was settling the boundary. Cityhood bills will need to be feasible. They’ll need to find a sponsor in the General Assembly. The bills will need to be passed and signed by the governor. Then the voters will get a chance to vote on these issues in a referendum.

During the Dec. 19 hearing, panel members recommended that any cityhood referendum should wait until the fall of 2015. Given the complexity of the issues and amount of back and forth between the various competing movements, it will take a lot of time for a voter to soak it all in before making a decision.

But what does this mean for the creation of new cities going forward? That’s the lingering question that will be the legacy of DeKalb’s cityhood debate.

“We are in murky territory,” Brockway said. “During the last session, this was so muddled between these two proposals, I think we need to not let this happen again. Nothing can stop two cities from proposing and trying to have the same area, but I think we’ve got to figure out, and I don’t have any answers, but we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with this on the front end so we don’t wind up where we’re at, where we’re having to bend rules. We can’t let this be a precedent.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the state representative whose district includes Medlock Park. The representative for Medlock is state Rep. Rahn Mayo, D-Decatur. 

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • MAC

    Dan, excellent piece which introduces important inquiries that we all should be digesting no matter where our opinions fall on the outcome spectrum. Your readers are appreciative of the serious coverage that you and Decaturish have given this topic. You stated that you see the compromise between Tucker and LaVista Hillls as disadvantageous to LVH. Do you mean that the “compromise” (i.e., the subcommittee’s decision itself ) somehow inherently put LVH at a disadvantage? Or do you really mean something else? From my vantage point, LaVista Hills’ own ambitious and extensive delineations, which proposed to stretch from Fulton to Gwinnett County, cultivated inevitable frictions with competing interests within their proposed boundaries. The further you stretch your wings, the more branches you’re going to disrupt. That’s a natural outcome, and hardly the result of the compromise. It will be very interesting to see if (or how) the time trajectory toward cityhood might change for Tucker and LaVista Hills considering these weighty issues, particularly on the LVH side. With fewer competing conflicts and a clearer path going forward, will Tucker reach its objective sooner? With more complexities and circumstances totally out of their control, will LaVista Hills reach its objective later than desired…and maintain a map that looks anything like what we’re looking at today? More questions to add to the pot and mull over…

    • Thanks. I simply meant that LaVista Hills has some more hoops to jump through than Tucker. They’ll have to sort through a complex boundary dispute and they’ll also need to raise money from donors for a feasibility study. Raising $30,000 is not easy, and the groups have done it twice now: one for Lakseside and one for Briarcliff. Fundraising is a challenge, particularly when it’s for something you’re having to do over. I think there are more complexities in LaVista’s case than Tucker’s, but I’m not commenting on the inherent worth of either proposal.

  • notapunk

    Thanks, Dan, for the most comprehensive piece I’ve seen anywhere on the state of the current cityhood process. Your work is much appreciated. I would recommend that anyone interested in the issue read Decaturish.

    • You’re quite welcome. I hope people who appreciate this kind of work will consider subscribing. We’re putting resources into reporting so we can produce more stories like these. I’m proud that I can provide a story like this without sticking it behind a pay wall. Our subscribers are an important part of that. The more we have, the easier it is to sustain. (End shameless plug.)

  • DHer

    “What about the debt DeKalb Schools incurred to renovate those schools? Does DeKalb County keep that debt while losing the buildings to Atlanta?”
    I believe this is the wrong question. DeKalb is not issuing bonds to pay for renovations and construction. It is paying for these improvements from current sales tax receipts using the ESPLOST. The fact is that all DeKalb shoppers have been paying this ESPLOST. Some receive benefits earlier than others, but the sales tax has been in place for many years. Improvements were scheduled in some master capital improvements plan created by the DeKalb Board of Ed.
    BTW Dunwoody and Brookhaven taxpayers are continuing to pay for parks, library and road bonds that were incurred before they incorporated. (I do wonder if Decatur businesses are collecting the ESPLOST? Does CSD keep what they collect?)

    • Don Rigger

      Decatur gets a share of SPLOST. I don’t think Decatur’s share is proportional to sales within the city limit though. I think it is a set formula

  • DHer

    “DeKalb County Schools’ rejection of a petition to create a Druid Hills Charter Cluster led to the formation of Together in Atlanta.” This is not the complete story. In August of 2013 long before the Charter had been rejected, Druid Hills Civic Association held a community meeting about the cityhood options. They invited representatives from the City of Briarcliff Initiative, CEO Lee May and representatives from the City of Atlanta. The City’s presentation was very impressive and a group formed to further explore annexation. TIA was formed after the rejection of the Charter, but there were other forces at work.

  • WWJD

    Dan, excellent work. I encourage you to dig a little deeper and ask how county leaders intend to fund the remaining school system after Atlanta and Decatur’s annexations. The remaining digest is simply not strong enough to support the system at the current funding levels. What will the remaining system cut? Dunwoody and Brookhaven should be discussing the issue now since they will be the primary tax digest after the annexations.

  • Tom B. Doolittle

    True enough. Dan–this article has shelf value. I’ll give $.

    The history of this episode won’t simply be written as cities either forming or not, but how the original Lakeside effort change all geopolitics that has existed between Atlanta and DeKalb, principally why Druid Hills is what it is and what forces have emanated from it (Emory has its own “influence”).

  • Tom B. Doolittle

    They never set up rules for groups “representing” communities. All problems emanate from having no rules–the only one they have is for the economic analysis–and they don’t have any specifications for those.

    Of course, their reasons for doing this is to avoid responsibility for any form of REGULATION. In Georgia, the state law was to FACILITATE AND PROMOTE. That inferentially makes the state the AUTHOR of the city. In order to not connect the law with responsibility, they have to continually adapt the process.

    They literally will never fix this. The next challenge will be to AVOID new cities without prohibiting them in REPUBLICAN led counties. Unless those county governments have reasons to promote new jurisdictions, Republican lawmakers will run afoul of their brethren county officials. The county officials will intially fight these on HOME RULE and small government philosophy.

    If the state is serious about this, my suggestion would be to survey other state’s process. They are much more specific. The main thing is that they have qualified commissions for certifying “community” qualifications.

    They will get serious about REGULATION (limiting the formation of cities) when they enter Republican territory.

    BTW–there is a test for them in Forsyth County right now–we’ll see.

  • Firefly

    Dan Whisenhunt has provided all of us in Dekalb an excellent forum for discussion about annexations and new cities within Dekalb. I only wish more residents in Dekalb would get involved! I would say most citizens in Dekalb are apathetic and have made no efforts to get informed. The AJC should do a better job of covering this story. It seems to me that only a handful of people are spearheading movements for big changes that will effect us all. Someone needs to dig a little deeper and see what these handful of people stand to gain by the changes they are promoting. Where is 5Alive? For example, Selig Enterprises owns Emory Commons and Surburban Plaza (Walmart). Are they looking forward to the planned annexation into the City of Decatur? Do they wish to stay in incorporated Dekalb? We just don’t know, do we?

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