Meet Together In Atlanta, the group boosting the city's push to annex Druid Hills
In all the DeKalb annexation and incorporation madness, a group of residents feel a pull toward Atlanta
- Together In Atlanta via Facebook
- Proposed area that could be annexed by Atlanta includes Druid Hills, Emory
Among all the proposals to carve DeKalb County up into cities, join nearby municipalities, or stay unincorporated, one stands out as the biggest game-changer: Atlanta's annexation of Druid Hills, a mostly residential neighborhood that also includes Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After years of talk, a group called Together In Atlanta, is leading the area's pro-annexation effort. The group only materialized a few months ago as an anonymously-run Facebook page. But over the past six weeks, the annexation movement gained major steam. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed publicly endorsed the group's proposed map. The Druid Hills Civic Association conducted a postcard survey that found 52 percent of residents are “comfortable” with it. And TIA, armed on Facebook with facts and statistics that promote Atlanta, submitted a proposed annexation map to the Gold Dome, the first step in seeking a ballot referendum next year.
All of that has raised questions about TIA’s agenda and backing. “The perception is, TIA was primarily motivated by the schools issue,” says DHCA President Justin Critz.
TIA’s annexation map consists of DeKalb’s Briar Vista and Fernbank elementary school zones. And the submission letter was signed by Matthew Lewis, the former chair of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster, a controversial failed attempt to create an autonomous group of schools in the area. Annexation would have a different impact, including possibly shifting some schools and the Fernbank Science Center to Atlanta Public Schools. But that option has become just as controversial, drawing a scathing report from the DeKalb County Schools superintendent. Some stakeholders aren't thrilled about the idea as well.
However, TIA’s Facebook page recently declared the group “wholly independent” from the charter effort and released a “steering committee” membership list. One of those members, Natalie DiSantis, tells CL that TIA members have a wide range of motivations. The group is so grassroots and informal, she says, all of its members have yet to sit down in the same room, instead conversing via email.
The overarching motivation linking TIA members, DiSantis says, is the same one driving DeKalb's cityhood efforts. It’s the domino effect of new cities and annexations following Dunwoody’s 2008 incorporation, driven by desires for local control and loss of faith in the wake of county government corruption and mismanagement. At least five new DeKalb cities have been proposed since then.
“It’s already happening; the cities are going to occur,” DiSantis says. From TIA’s perspective, that means Druid Hills either gets “orphaned” and saddled with a higher county tax burden, or ends up in a new city with unpredictable leadership and finances.
Atlanta's potential annexation is an attractive option to TIA because the city is booming economically and remains familiar to many Druid Hills residents. In fact, roughly 500 of the neighborhood’s 3,700 households are already in Atlanta thanks to a previous annexation a century ago. (Druid Hills also has nine houses in Decatur, Critz notes.)
Angelo Fuster, a well-connected political consultant for three previous mayors, lives literally on the border. “My garage is in the city of Atlanta,” he says. Fuster says he’s pro-annexation, but he hasn’t been involved in the annexation organizing, adding that he also sees no fingerprints of political influence from such powerhouses as Reed or Emory.
“My sense is, TIA is pretty grassroots,” Fuster says. “This is not the mayor’s idea, I don’t believe. I believe he saw the demographic numbers and the prestige of gaining Emory and the CDC…and he jumped on that. I don’t think there is any other power behind the effort.”
The recent DHCA survey found heavy opposition to cityhood — only 19 percent in support. Fifty-two percent of the respondents said they were “comfortable” with annexation and 46 percent would prefer going solo. That’s why DHCA has no official position on the issue, but is endorsing the referendum so the neighborhood can decide.
“We’re fairly evenly divided as a neighborhood," Critz says about annexation and becoming unincorporated.
The survey also found several factors to be important to residents’ thinking, including taxes, quality of government services, and preserving the Druid Hills Historic District in a neighborhood designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York’s Central Park.
“It’s not just concern about schools driving it,” Critz says.
DiSantis says her personal interest comes from working at Emory — she doesn’t represent her employer on TIA — alongside scientists who don’t make a lot of money in an expensive area. She notes how such Atlanta-based schools as Georgia Tech have mixed-income multifamily housing nearby, and Invest Atlanta offering homebuyer assistance. Become a part of Atlanta, she says, would be a chance to “be part of progressive programs” and answer the question, “How do we continue to make this a place to live, work and play?”
For now, though, TIA is focused on a smaller incorporation — registering itself as a 501(c)(4) advocacy nonprofit. Starting next month, it aims to launch a website for public education and a Gold Dome push to schedule a referendum.
NOTE: This post has been altered to correct an error. The proposed city limits of Tucker and LaVista Hills do not include Druid HIlls.