A bill would carve ‘Buckhead City’ out of Atlanta. Here’s what could happen next

An aerial photograph shows the Buckhead skyline earlier this year. Buckhead has become one of Atlanta's main business hubs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
An aerial photograph shows the Buckhead skyline earlier this year. Buckhead has become one of Atlanta's main business hubs. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Now that a bill has been introduced to make Buckhead its own city, a study could be underway soon to determine if such a move is viable.

On the last day of the legislative session last month, state lawmakers filed a bill to form “Buckhead City” out of a portion of Atlanta known for its wealth, luxury shopping and political influence. Because new cities must be approved by the Legislature over at least two sessions, it will be November 2022 at the earliest before voters in Buckhead could have a say on its creation.

It could face stiff opposition under the Gold Dome, but Buckhead cityhood proponents have already begun working to raise money and do the research needed to justify a new city.

Buckhead residents in favor of seceding say the idea is borne out of frustration over the city of Atlanta’s handling of crime and infrastructure issues. The Buckhead Exploratory Committee, the group behind the idea, says Buckhead City launching its own police department would make residents safer.

The group also feels Buckhead gets “very little return on our investment,” a recent Buckhead Exploratory Committee flyer states. “Buckhead residents pay a disproportionate amount of Atlanta taxes.”

The Buckhead Village area in January. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
The Buckhead Village area in January. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The venture is opposed by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and several influential Buckhead business groups like the Buckhead Coalition, who say the concept of cityhood is divisive and unproductive. Some also worry it would put Atlanta in a difficult financial position by removing a large chunk of the city’s tax base.

“I think it is a terrible idea. I think it sends the wrong message,” Bottoms said last week in an interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting. “I understand the frustration, but creating a new city is not the answer.”

Now, the Buckhead Exploratory Committee is planning to commission a feasibility study to look at whether the new city would be doable. Those studies are usually conducted by research institutes at local universities and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to the Georgia House Budget and Research Office.

ExploreWhat history and state law say about the push for Buckhead to become its own city

The results will be used to show whether the new city would be financially stable, by examining how many tax dollars it would take in — and how much it would strip from Atlanta.

The cityhood committee declined an interview, but the group’s president Sam Lenaeus said in a statement that the group is currently fundraising for the feasibility study and getting estimates on its cost. He said the committee also conducted an internal poll to assess whether the Buckhead community backed the effort. Lenaeus did not share the results of that survey but said they received “overwhelming support.”

The group also said “hearings” are expected to begin as early as this summer, though they have not released specifics on when those might be or what they could entail.

The cityhood process
<ExpandableTextMessage data-heading="The cityhood process"><center><p>Here are the steps required for a new city to be formed in Georgia:</p></center><p> • A local group decides it wants to incorporate.</p><p>• A bill, sponsored by a member of the state Legislature, is introduced.</p><p>• A feasibility study is done to see whether the new city would be viable. </p><p>• The bill goes before the state House and Senate and is reviewed over two sessions. </p><p>• If the House and Senate pass it, the bill goes to the governor's desk.</p><p>• If the governor signs it, a referendum is then placed on the ballot, allowing voters to choose whether they would like their community to form a new city. It is approved with a simple majority.</p></ExpandableTextMessage>

The bill to create Buckhead City was sponsored by state Rep. Todd Jones in the House and Sen. Brandon Beach in the Senate. Neither represent Buckhead; Jones’ district includes southern Forsyth County and a portion of Johns Creek, while Beach represents much of Cherokee County and parts of Milton and Alpharetta.

When lawmakers return next year, the bill would have to be approved by both the House and Senate before it is sent to the governor’s desk. If signed by the governor, the question of cityhood would then be put on the ballot for Buckhead voters.

Several other cityhood efforts in metro Atlanta, including the proposed cities of Vista Grove and Greenhaven in DeKalb County, have been stalled for years under the Gold Dome, unable to win approval from lawmakers.

The proposed “Buckhead City” has “city” added to its name because the small town of Buckhead, Georgia already exists in Morgan County.

Though Lenaeus said the geographic boundaries of “Buckhead City” will be finalized after the feasibility study is done, Buckhead generally includes the swath of Atlanta north of I-75 and I-85, as well as the tony Paces, Margaret Mitchell and West Peachtree Battle neighborhoods west of I-75. It’s home to the Governor’s Mansion, popular malls like Lenox Square and high-end stores and restaurants, leading some to call it the “Beverly Hills of the South.”

The area’s residents are predominantly white and its neighborhoods are among the wealthiest in the city, census data shows. That has led some critics to question the racial and class dynamics behind the cityhood push, though Lenaeus said the community has “more diversity on our streets than we ever had” and pointed to statistics showing the diverse racial makeup of North Atlanta High School in Buckhead.

“We are honored to work for everyone in our community, regardless of race. We believe we can help the city of Atlanta focus on other areas of the city by handling our own matters,” he said.

The concept of cityhood for Buckhead has come up in the past, but this latest push gained more steam in 2020, after more residents in Buckhead and throughout the city grew worried about a rise in crime and late-night street racing. Atlanta police data shows the police zone that includes Buckhead saw a roughly 30% rise in aggravated assaults and car thefts last year, while burglary and larceny went down.

Buckhead is home to a number of luxury shopping destinations. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Buckhead is home to a number of luxury shopping destinations. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

There were also nine homicides, including the shooting of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie, who was struck by a stray bullet while Christmas shopping with her family. The uptick in crime led a group of civic and business groups to pay for additional Atlanta police patrols around Buckhead’s commercial core.

Bottoms’ office said breaking away from Atlanta would not solve Buckhead’s crime problems.

“Buckhead has, and always will be an important and valued part of Atlanta. Even if an impermeable wall were built around this proposed new city, it would not address the COVID crime wave that Atlanta, the state and the rest of the nation are experiencing,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a statement. “That is why this measure is opposed by many residents and the business community.”

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