Brookhaven’s Toco Hill annexation petition withdrawn

A controversial petition to annex the Toco Hill shopping center and surrounding areas into the city of Brookhaven has been withdrawn. Photo by Julie Hodack

A controversial petition to annex the Toco Hill shopping center and surrounding areas into the city of Brookhaven has been withdrawn. Photo by Julie Hodack

The petitioner behind the controversial Toco Hill annexation attempt has withdrawn the application.

Brookhaven city leaders planned to vote on the annexation request next week unless DeKalb County agreed to hold a referendum on the issue. The withdrawal halts the city’s scheduled vote but leaves the door open for the county to authorize a referendum, or for residents to apply again.

“While we have over 60 percent of the registered voters in the area, due to some questions raised about the application, I have decided to withdraw the current application,” applicant Howard Ginsberg said in a statement. “My neighbors and I remain very interested in becoming a part of Brookhaven and intend to pursue another annexation application soon unless DeKalb County gives us a chance to vote in a referendum.”

Ginsberg submitted the annexation application in May, seeking the transfer of 462 acres of privately owned land in unincorporated DeKalb County to the city of Brookhaven. The proposed annexation area included the Toco Hill shopping center and would have brought about 4,200 residents into the city.

In a July 18 letter to Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, Dekalb County attorneys objected to the petition and said the application didn’t have the support required to be considered under Georgia law. The county said the application was “riddled with confirmed fraud,” including forged signatures of at least five people.

Efforts to reach Ginsberg were unsuccessful.

County officials have been wary of the effort from the outset and estimated the county could lose $2 million in property tax revenue if the annexation were to go through. CEO Michael Thurmond said he and the commissioners are pleased Ginsberg withdrew his application.

“This decision will promote transparency and protect the due-process rights of DeKalb residents,” Thurmond said in a statement.

The way the petition was submitted, it was solely up to Brookhaven city leaders to decide whether to approve. But after two heated public meetings where some residents alleged their signatures were forged on the annexation petition, Brookhaven voted on a resolution asking DeKalb County to agree to a referendum to settle the annexation question. The city gave DeKalb County until June 25 to decide and said it would proceed with the application as-is if the county didn’t agree to a referendum by then.

Both Brookhaven and DeKalb County were investigating the validity of the signatures.

The results of DeKalb’s investigation were included in the letter to Ernst and Brookhaven officials.

The petition sought annexation under the state’s 60% method, which requires the support of at least 60% of an area’s active voters and its landowners before it goes to the city for its approval. Ginsberg purported to have the support of 64% of active voters and 62% of landowners.

That’s inaccurate, DeKalb officials said. The application didn’t account for all of the active voters in the proposed annexation area, according to the county’s analysis of the voter rolls. The petition said there were 1,394 active voters, but the county said there are actually 1,946, meaning the petition’s 896 signatures fall short of the required 60% minimum.

DeKalb officials said they found evidence that five landowner signatures were forged. Signatures for property owned by Torah Day School, St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church and Termina High School were forged, as well as those for two private residences.

Additionally, other landowners have withdrawn their signatures. The county alleged that at most, 58% of landowners have given support to the annexation, also falling short of the minimum requirement.

The county also alleged the petition and the city have failed to follow other requirements.

In an email to Chief Operating Officer and Executive Assistant Zach Williams on Thursday, Thurmond said the county has not made any decision on whether to hold a referendum and won’t until Brookhaven’s investigation into the signatures is complete.