Behold! The Great DeKalb Land Rush of 2014!
Communities scramble to flee county government, join existing cities
DeKalb residents were chattering about forming new cities long before the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a case against an elected official and the county's CEO was indicted for political corruption. But it's time to get serious if they want to woo the state Legislature and area voters to make decisions that mean much for people on both sides of the lines.
Supporters of Tucker, a merged Briarcliff-Lakeside plan, and an idea to incorporate all of south DeKalb — which would leave only a sliver of DeKalb unincorporated, severely undercutting county revenues — must first present maps of their proposed municipalities before the General Assembly convenes in January. Gold Dome lawmakers have set the deadline to avoid a session dominated by border wars. If lawmakers approve the new cities, voters in each area will have the final say in 2015 referenda.
Why some unincorporated areas are rushing to go it alone or buddy up with nearby municipalities can be traced back to some of the age-old points of contention: The county just can't cut it in terms of code enforcement, park maintenance, and policing.
Mary Kay Woodworth, the chair of Yes Lakeside, the group looking to form a city that stretches from Emory University to a few miles OTP, says DeKalb's service delivery is a "mixed bag." The county's trash pickup and police department are great, she says. But she thinks the City of Lakeside could pay for more officers and better public works, parks, and zoning.
The City of Briarcliff had a similar plan in the works. Because it was similar to Lakeside, residents from both areas may join forces — and their maps — and head to the Gold Dome with a single proposal, says Allen Venet of the City of Briarcliff Initiative.
Tucker supporters want to form a city to improve the area's planning, zoning, code enforcement, and parks. The strength of Tucker's push is partly a reaction to Lakeside's efforts to become a city as well. An early map that showed Lakeside reaching within a block of Tucker Main Street put Tuckerites on the defensive.
City number three is the yet-to-be-named municipality that comprises unincorporated south DeKalb below Highway 78. Kathryn Rice, the chair of Concerned Citizens for Cityhood of South DeKalb, says the county's southern segment would receive an economic boost by having its own city and a council that could make planning and zoning decisions. South DeKalb would rely upon county police, she says.
Then there are folks who simply want to become part of a well-established city: Atlanta. The Druid Hills Civic Association later this month will mail residents a questionnaire asking whether they want to join Atlanta, remain in unincorporated DeKalb, or become part of the Briarcliff-Lakeside initiative. Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan attended a recent meeting in Medlock Park, a neighborhood that sits north of Decatur, to answer questions about Atlanta's services, improved finances, and potential.
"The city is not aggressively pursuing annexation," Wan says, but is "open to any community that may want to start a conversation."
Though supportive of such proposals, Interim DeKalb County CEO Lee May says state law leaves counties in the lurch financially when communities incorporate by reducing the revenue generated from permits and business licensing, plus leaving DeKalb to pay for some services already rendered, such as some police pensions.
And, cities — both new and existing ones — draw their own borders, subject only to the very political process at the Gold Dome and the whims of their own residents. In doing so, the mapmakers often try to scoop up shopping centers and industrial zones, which pay more in local taxes than they get in services and are big spenders on permits and business licenses.
Tucker and Lakeside city boosters quarreled so heatedly over who might claim Northlake Mall that they once thought of dividing it in two. Charles DeWitt, a cofounder of the Northlake Business Association, said uniform planning, zoning, permitting, and police are too important. The alliance's members are not favoring any one jurisdiction over another, they just want to be left intact, whoever is in charge.
Meanwhile, existing cities are trying to rope off more valuable turf. Decatur is considering annexing Suburban Plaza and both sides of DeKalb Industrial Way. Avondale Estates, Stone Mountain, Clarkston, and even tiny Pine Lake want to absorb neighboring business properties. Your DeKalb Farmers Market has been eyed by Briarcliff, Avondale Estates, and Decatur.
But DeKalb's got a stink to it right now. May became interim CEO when Burrell Ellis was indicted for allegedly using his elected office to pressure contractors for campaign cash. Ex-commissioner Elaine Boyer is facing possible prison time for allegedly running a more-than $90,000 kickback scheme. The optics are not ideal.
May says personally that everyone's better off not subdividing into smaller jurisdictions when it comes to big-picture issues such as planning, transportation, economic development, and community development. "I would hope people pushing to incorporate would give us an opportunity to mend fences, build bridges, and better communicate with one another," he says.
County officials have only months left to do so.