Cityhood movements grow following Cobb County’s ‘Blue Wave’

05/05/2021 — Vinings, Georgia — People travel from stores and restaurants at the Vinings Jubilee shopping center in Vinings, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
05/05/2021 — Vinings, Georgia — People travel from stores and restaurants at the Vinings Jubilee shopping center in Vinings, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Among the flurry of bills Georgia lawmakers filed this year were four pieces of legislation that lay the groundwork for carving up pockets of Cobb County.

The paperwork, put forward in the waning days of the 2021 legislative session, initiated a two-year process, that if successful, could give voters in East Cobb, Lost Mountain, Vinings, and Mableton the opportunity to establish their own municipal boundaries.

Talk of creating new cities in Cobb has materialized previously, but no one can recall a time when four movements were simultaneously underway. Population growth, housing trends, rapidly changing demographics, and a new county commission have created intense insecurity about the future of the county.

Political change has often propelled the debate over incorporating suburbs and typically centers on residents wanting more control over how their tax dollars are spent.

Cobb cityhood advocates say the county’s decades-old one-size-fits-all zoning approach can no longer accommodate various pockets of the county with their own distinct needs. A smaller city, they say, can exercise far more control over development.

05/05/2021 — Vinings, Georgia — A couple walks along the Hermi’s Bridge in Vinings, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
05/05/2021 — Vinings, Georgia — A couple walks along the Hermi’s Bridge in Vinings, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Galt Porter, a board member of South Cobb Alliance, the group advocating for the municipality of Mableton points to the proliferation of unsightly used tire shops on Veterans Memorial Highway, a major thoroughfare.

“That’s something that’s not a problem elsewhere in the county,” he said.

The proposed Cobb municipalities would have between 55,000 and 100,000 residents each.

State law requires that a proposed city offer at least four major services to incorporate. All four would-be cities would take control of planning and zoning plus two or three other services, such as code enforcement or parks and recreation.

The proposals are only in their infancy and must clear significant hurdles, including voter approval.

After a 30-year battle, Sandy Springs incorporated in 2005, opening the floodgates for roughly 10 other metro Atlanta cities to form their own governments. The incorporation movement effectively swallowed all of Fulton County.

Cobb County could be at the brink of its own split that for the moment seems driven by concerns over increasing housing density.

Census data show that from 2010 to 2019 the number of “dwelling structures” with 20 or more units rose by 40 percent, while the number of single-family homes rose by only five percent in the county.

The website promoting the City of Lost Mountain warns that while the Republican commissioner representing West Cobb has fought to protect it, she is outnumbered by others on the board who are “not looking out for West Cobb’s interests.”

“The writing is on the wall,” the website says. “As we’ve seen, overdevelopment, industrial zoning, and increased high-density housing inevitably lead to declining property values, increased road traffic, reduced green space, and overcrowded schools. Before long, everything we’ve come to know and love about West Cobb will be transformed.”

Political changes spur concern

The U.S. House of Representatives 6th District, which includes parts of Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties had been represented by a Republican since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s 1979 election.

Two years ago, voters elected Lucy McBath, an African American Democrat to the seat.

Then, in November, Cupid and two other African American women, also Democrats, won seats on the commission.

Now for the first time in Cobb’s history, the five-member county commission is run by all women, three of whom are Black Democrats.

The changes on the commission, along with Black Democrats mounting successful campaigns for races for district attorney and sheriff, were the most significant sweep that any longtime Cobb politicos can recall.

But the shift in political power has left some feeling vulnerable.

The website promoting the City of Lost Mountain warns that while the Republican commissioner representing West Cobb has fought to protect it, she is outnumbered by others on the commission who are “not looking out for West Cobb’s interests.”

Cupid told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently that the cityhood movement and some of the sentiments driving it have surprised her.

The chairwoman has advocated for racial and social equity and said that not everyone has benefited from Cobb’s recent economic growth. She wants more affordable housing, but said it shouldn’t be in just one part of the county.

Sam Olens, a former Georgia Attorney General and Cobb Commission Chair, said he believes the county has represented the different needs of Cobb residents well and opposes creating additional cities, but he acknowledged the election helped spur more interest in cityhood.

“With new commissioners comes new anxiety,” he said.

All four proposals for new cities follow a model commonly known as “Citylite,” whereby a newly-created municipality assumes responsibility for limited government functions, particularly those that regulate development, while leaving the administration of public safety and schools to the county and school board.

Cobb now has six cities — Marietta, Smyrna, Kennesaw, Acworth, Powder Springs and Austell — that range in population from 7,200 to more than 60,000.

More than 75 percent of the county’s estimated 790,000 residents live in unincorporated areas.

According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Cobb’s number of housing structures - single-family homes to apartment buildings - rose from 286,561 to 304,843 from 2010 to 2019. While single-family homes increased by roughly 190,000 to 200,000,

The number of buildings with 20 or more apartments grew by a much larger percentage from about 20,000 to 28,000.

Much of the density increase is directly attributable to the Atlanta Braves baseball team move from Atlanta to Cobb’s Truist Park and the mixed-use development known as The Battery that surrounds it. The development has added thousands of housing units, primarily apartments, condos and townhouses to the area.

Bill Byrne, a longtime Cobb Republican and a former commission chair from 1992 to 2003, said he opposed the Braves deal because of he knew it would change the nature of development in the county. Byrne said the Republicans who championed the project, which included hundreds of millions in public incentives, ultimately helped bring an end to their party’s dominance in Cobb because the new housing attracted people with different political leanings.

Today, cityhood proponents are reacting to forces put in motion too long ago to be stopped, Byrne said.

“They are trying to preserve what they have to protect it from change,” Byrne said.

05/05/2021 — Vinings, Georgia —The exterior of the Old Vinings Inn located in Vinings, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
05/05/2021 — Vinings, Georgia —The exterior of the Old Vinings Inn located in Vinings, Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Taryn Bowman, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Georgia State House in 2020, who is helping lead an exploratory committee to study Vinings cityhood, said she and others have continuously fought rezoning an area near the Chattahoochee River for apartments.

Cobb’s cityhood advocates say that more localized control over development won’t translate into increased taxes.

At an East Cobb cityhood virtual forum on April 14, Matt Dollar, the Republican state representatives who sponsored legislation to incorporate the area, said that the county commission currently has one district representative for every 200,000 residents. That number would drop to about 9,000 residents per city council representative, under the current proposal.

Sarah Haas, a fitness instructor, volunteer, mother of four, and one of a dozen East Cobb residents serving on the incorporation committee, said a Thomas Jefferson quote best summed up her motivations.

“The government closest to the people serves the people the best,” she said.

George “Buddy” Darden, a Democrat resident of the City of Marietta, who served as Cobb’s District Attorney in the 1970s, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the most recent incorporation efforts are a resistance to changes that have already occurred.

“I think the creation of cities represents a turn of the clock backward,” said Darden, who also represented the area in the state house and in the U.S. Congress. “We are not a suburban county anymore. We are an urban county.”

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NEW CITIES

Here’s a look at cities that have been created in metro Atlanta since 2005.

City / Population

Sandy Springs, 100,000

Johns Creek, 82,788

Milton, 35,907

Chattahoochee Hills, 2,400

Dunwoody, 48,733

Peachtree Corners, 40,978

Brookhaven, 51,910

Tucker, 33,000

Stonecrest, 50,000

South Fulton, 100,000

Source: The cities, websites.

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