Emory wants to be part of Atlanta - and according to some observers, speed up long-awaited MARTA rail line

Residents wonder if other neighborhoods will also bid farewell to DeKalb

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It’s not so much the idea of Emory University becoming part of the City of Atlanta and leaving DeKalb that has nearby residents on edge. It’s the potential for the annexation process to inspire other neighbors to follow suit. And most people watching the process suspect the prospect of a long-awaited rail line serving serving the university is behind Emory’s decision.

More than 100 of those residents packed the DeKalb Senior Center on McConnell Drive last night to hear DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader outline the annexation proposal that’s taken the community, along with elected officials, by surprise.

Emory has always had an Atlanta mailing address and promoted itself as being in Atlanta. But the university is actually located in unincorporated DeKalb. Late last week, Emory officials confirmed that, after years of study, they were starting the annexation process to become a part of the city.

“Emory’s annexation into the City of Atlanta has always been viewed as one of the most viable, long-term options and one that provides consistency and alignment relative to the University’s marketing and branding initiatives,” the university said in a statement. “The prestige of Emory as an international university and Atlanta as a global city are inextricably linked.”

But residents attending the meeting said they strongly suspect, or have been told by people affiliated with Emory, that the main driver behind the annexation effort is to improve the likelihood of seeing a line rail connect the school to MARTA’s Lindbergh station.

Atlanta voters will decide in November whether they want to pay a half-cent sales tax to fund a $2.5 billion expansion of MARTA inside the city limits. The Clifton Corridor rail line becomes much more competitive for some of that funding if Emory moves into Atlanta or DeKalb finds a way to raise its own funding. Emory did not respond when CL asked what role MARTA played in its decision. Here’s a good primer on the proposed rail line.

Some questioned why the university would take such a big step during a time of transition. Emory President James Wagner stepped down in April DeKalb will soon welcome a new CEO and commissioners to replace others washed away by scandal or voters (or a combination of the two), and Atlanta voters will pick a new man or woman to call mayor in 2017. And if the rail line would take years to construct — enough time for DeKalb to levy its own sales tax to fund the project — why now? In other words, why the rush?

Absent more information from Emory — no representatives spoke at the meeting — county, state, and school officials could only talk about the process, potential challenges, and guess as to the motive.

DeKalb County School District Boardmember Marshall Orson, who represents the impacted communities, worried about how the annexation would affect the governance of a school system that’s made strides under a new superintendent. Shortly after taking the mic, he said aloud that he “thought annexation was over” (some Druid Hills residents had mulled joining Atlanta roughly one year ago before cooling on the idea). He said the annexation effort could cut two parts of Druid Hills apart, creating pressure on parents to consider changing jurisdictions.

Top of mind for Rader is how land-use and zoning decisions brokered between the county, university, and surrounding residents might be affected. He also wants to know whether the city can provide adequate fire protection to the new part of the city.

For residents, the concern mainly deals with what might happen if Emory leaves. Druid Hills resident Bruce MacGregor says neighborhoods wonder how life could change when the large institution next door becomes part of a different government, one with different political leaders and zoning plans. Others who have lived along the university’s borders could become tiny unincorporated islands.

Susa Nahmias, who’s lived in DeKalb since she moved to America from Sweden in 1987, says she’s conflicted. She lives a short walk from Clifton Road and a future transit line, one that could help resolve a frustrating and congested corridor. At the same time, she wonders what happens if other nearby communities, many of which would bring a sizable boost to Atlanta’s tax base, start following Emory.

“I’m very much afraid of a Domino effect,” she says. “I think it would be disastrous for DeKalb. This is not just a small neighborhood deciding they want to become a city.”