Brookhaven declares victory in annexation spat with DeKalb County

Brookhaven officials are declaring victory following a state arbitration panel’s decision in one of the city’s annexation spats with DeKalb County, saying a large new development near the intersection of North Druid Hills and Briarcliff roads will now move forward.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst said the panel’s decision should also mean millions of dollars of coronavirus aid money will soon land in the city’s coffers. A DeKalb County commissioner stalled delivery of the funds to try and force Brookhaven to discuss long-standing issues surrounding annexation and tax abatements offered to developers, including the matter considered by the arbitration panel.

“Now that this is behind us, we can all get down to progress,” Ernst said in a news release.

It may not be that simple. DeKalb County could choose to further challenge the annexation through Superior Court.

A county spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on that possibility. Commissioner Jeff Rader, who has been deeply critical of Brookhaven’s annexation efforts, said Friday he didn’t know if the fight would continue.

“We ultimately have to evaluate the integrity of the entire process and see if there are flaws in it, and then determine what public interest [would be] served by continuing the process,” he said.

The annexation in question involves about 27 acres that touch all four corners of the busy intersection of North Druid Hills and Briarcliff roads, about half a mile south of I-85. Plans for the area include a major project from The Related Group that would replace the aging Briarcliff Station shopping center with a seven-story hotel, an apartment complex and other office and retail space.

DeKalb officials filed a formal objection to the annexation in January, citing traffic and infrastructure concerns as well as a general distaste for Brookhaven continuing to expand its footprint into unincorporated parts of the county, eating into its tax base.

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs subsequently assembled an arbitration panel to hear the case. The panel didn’t meet to hear arguments from each side until last week because of the coronavirus pandemic. It released its recommendations on Thursday.

The panel does not approve or reject annexations, but it effectively green-lighted the seven-acre Related Group development by putting no restrictions in place to impede its progress. It did, however, say that Brookhaven should not change the land use or zoning of any of the other parcels under annexation consideration for a year.

Those parcels include the existing Target shopping center as well as nearby Chick-fil-A, QuikTrip, LensCrafters, Taco Bell, Boston Market and Sherwin-Williams locations.

The arbitration panel also recommended that Brookhaven “use reasonable efforts” to notify nearby residents of unincorporated DeKalb about future proposals for the properties so they can weigh in before they’re implemented. It also recommended that Brookhaven notify DeKalb County and its school district “of any proposed tax abatement program” on the properties that will be annexed, so they can weigh in too.

Those recommendations are non-binding, but the latter especially is something that county and school officials have long asked for.

Rader said he had “moderate” expectations going into the arbitration process and the results were a mixed bag. He was skeptical about the city actually including the county in future decisions, but said the year-long delay in potential redevelopment on much of the property would at least “give the community more time to prepare and try to gain a seat at the table in the process.”

Rader was non-committal when asked about an upcoming vote on an intergovernmental agreement that would send about $5.6 million in federal coronavirus aid to Brookhaven. DeKalb County received about $125 million from the CARES Act earlier this year and, during a special-called meeting last week, commissioners approved agreements to send shares of the money to 11 other local cities.

But Rader declined to expedite approval of the money afforded to Brookhaven, making it clear he was using it as leverage to try and force the city to discuss long-standing disputes over annexations and tax abatements. The issue is on the agenda for the commission’s next regular meeting on Tuesday.

Rader said Friday that “we’ll have to see” if additional concerns are raised.

“This is not anger driven or anything like that,” Rader said. “We’re just trying to look out after the interest of the stakeholders we serve.”