Future of cityhood-annexation movement unclear after LaVista Hills defeat

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt November 4, 2015
Melissa 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

Melissa 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.

results (2)

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.

Source: Georgia Secretary of State's Office

Source: Georgia Secretary of State’s Office (Click to enlarge)

“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. 

About Dan Whisenhunt

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

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  • Robert Butera

    Having watched this play out both for and against in Dekalb, I think there are a few aspects of the city hood process that need improvement.

    1) There should be a neighborhood based pre-vetting process, where an entire neighborhood can express its preference to be included or not included in a proposal. In both Brookhaven as well as Lavista Hills, there were neighborhoods that were dragged in, against the wishes of a seeming overwhelming majority. This only helps amplify the no votes and make large groups of people angry.

    2) Every time a local neighborhood is split in some weird way that makes no sense to people who live there, proponents cite (among other things) “the rules” for annexation. Or maybe constraints that they do not wish to state. Just like with school district boundaries, those rules should include some guiding principles that include not breaking up recognized traditional neighborhoods (evidence of a long-standing civic association and recognized boundaries, for example)

    3) A majority vote seems way too narrow for something as important, and possibly divisive, as a vote for cityhood. Suppose Lavista Hills passed with 50.1% of the vote — that’s not a compelling way to get civic engagement and enthusiasm about a new city. Why not 60%? Dunwoody had 80%, and Tucker just had 70%+. Brookhaven was a low bar at 55%.

  • Cliff Nuttman

    Of course Lakeside would pass. The problem is that the big green blob on the Northern part of that map can’t pay for a city without the tax and commercial revenue of the big yellow blob in the South. And instead of engaging with the yellow blob people to see a) whether they wanted to be in a city and b) what they wanted from a city, they brought their cookie cutter already baked proposal and tried to shove it down our throats. Even many of the former Briarcliff city people (roughly the yellow blob) were shut out of the cool kids Lakeside club that took over the LaVista Hills coalition. People are not crazy about the county, that’s for sure. But trading one set of power hungry politicians for another was not the answer. To my friends in the LVH movement – we have a common goal with trying to reform and better the county. 91% of us agree on it. Even had a few votes been different and LVH had passed, 50/50 is no recipe for a successful city. Just one reason why I think state law should be changed to require a super majority – say 60% just like the annexation process. If a major change to how taxes will be collected and government is to be provided is a good idea, it should have broad support, not just a simple majority. That the pro-city movement made essentially no effort to convince many of the yellow areas of this and tried to run up the margin in their friendliest areas (basically trying to get everyone to pay for the benefit of the original Lakeside few) shows what voters figured out.

    • Marlbey

      Well said.

    • Kathy Massing

      Yes, BUT WE HAVE NO POLICE PROTECTION!! I am talking about basic safety. We have to pay the police extra to patrol our streets (like paying protection money to the mafia). Time to move…..

  • Tom Doolittle

    News about changes in the process is not good regarding the things you want Robert. Parent’s committee had a lot of testimony from experts that pointed to petitioning and a process like California where they don’t have a referendum–there is first a petiton (you now, signatures in writing) and several other social and economic bars. Then an official commission with land use experts decides. It’s a regulatory process, not a political one.

    Unfortunately, according to Parent, the changes will fall well short of that. They also havn’t figured out how the county govt and land use criteria should figure into making an overall annexation PLAN which covers all remaining unincorporated areas. The plan would define the limits of where an existing city COULD expand–and the neighborhoods and cities would take whatever time is needed politically to get there. The key is the long-term plan.

  • DH

    RAJ? Oh RAJ, where are you?

  • Bernie

    Despite all of its flaws, both real and imagined, the cityhood process works, and was validated by the results of these referenda. Both cityhood supporters and opponents should be encouraged by these results. The voters did pay attention, and were motivated to make their preferences known. The overall takeaway should be that the General Assembly should authorize referenda, so that the will of the voters can be determined.

  • Tom Doolittle

    Birdy says: as of this am–recount ordered, official is placed on leave–check it out

  • Tom Doolittle

    Tucker was a city after-all, according to the rest of the world. This is not the first time on this list–and there have been others.

    Note: as of the time this was done, it was the only “unincorporated area” from Georgia on the list.


  • Mike

    Unclear? It seems clear to me! Forget another layer of government that needs taxes and supervision…. Clearly the majority did NOT want to be a city!!

  • Temotu

    Hopefully the defeat of Lavista Hills will wake up some of the Greenhaven proponents to the fact that forcing communities into an artificial city is not a recipe for
    electoral success—particularly when some of those communities are historically
    and culturally much more tied to existing cities, like Clarkston, Pine Lake,
    and Stone Mountain, which they neighbor.

    It would make sense for the legislature to rewrite the city creation law to allow
    neighborhoods to opt in or out on a sectional basis: if some communities wanted
    in and others did not, the latter sections should not be forced in–nor should
    they be able to vote down the whole idea for the former sections should they
    want it.

  • Ernest

    Looking at this map makes clear that there were a number of precincts that went “no” in that yellow swath. Lots more than just Laurel Ridge neighborhood we keep hearing, that got a bad rap on all this because it was incorrectly labeled. What has been and is being incorrectly called “Laurel Ridge” is actually much, much bigger and is all the neighborhoods in the Shamrock area – Pine Glen, Laurel Ridge, Pangborn, Wilson Woods, Fork Creek Hills, Country Squire, parts of Springbrook and other neighborhoods around there. It is the Shamrock Precinct, not just the Laurel Ridge neighborhood around the elementary school. There actually is no Laurel Ridge precinct at all. That area of neighborhoods should be correctly called Shamrock or Shamrock precinct, not Laurel Ridge.

    There is still so much misinformation around. Little Laurel Ridge neighborhood alone being in or out wouldn’t make a major difference either way. Those residents should not be blamed for what all the neighborhoods around them in Shamrock did or didn’t do. And the precinct of Shamrock is not the only yellow one.

    Reality is that Shamrock as a whole, erroneously called “Laurel Ridge”, is enclosed in the interior of the LVH city limits, surrounded by all the neighborhoods from there to I-78, I-285, and the area all around and the other side of N DeKalb Mall up to the other side of QT, and up N Druid Hills Rd to the Willivee red light. It was and is impossible to just cut a hole out of the doughnut, whether for little Laurel Ridge neighborhood or the whole Shamrock precinct.

    My guess is that many who talk about it have not looked carefully at that whole part of the map. The situation is comparable to Leafmore, Oak Grove, Northlake, or any other interior neighborhood arbitrarily saying “Take us out!” It could not be done by the legislature; state law forbids creating “islands.”

  • Temotu

    Apologies for double-posting. Disqus was problematic so I tried to post as a guest then both posts showed up. Dan, if possible, please delete the duplicate. Thank you

  • JGreen

    Dan, In the article, you reference a TIA meeting on Friday. Did they ever provide you with a statement? Is there any information regarding that meeting?

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