After 20 years of efforts to eliminate the city, only about 20 residents left

There’s an easy-to-miss city in northern Gwinnett County with a handful of residents and businesses scattered across Ga. 13 up the road from historic Buford. Anyone who has recently driven from Buford to Gainesville on the highway has likely passed through Rest Haven without realizing it.

Rest Haven officials have tried to dissolve their quiet city, located on the line of Gwinnett and Hall counties, for nearly 20 years. The mayor and councilmembers are hard to reach and City Hall is locked with blinds covering the windows on most days.

Mayor Kenneth Waycaster, an older man with a beard down to his chest, is finally found at his home by a reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Asked about the future of Rest Haven, Waycaster praised Buford, just as he did five years earlier to another reporter asking the same question.

“Buford is the town,” said Waycaster, adding that he believes it’s one of the best cities in the nation.

Sitting in the garage of his home, Waycaster questioned why Rest Haven needs to exist. He estimates there are now only 22 residents in the city. The city only has a $30,000 budget, he said, compared to the budgets in the millions most cities manage.

Despite the mayor’s desire to let Buford absorb the town, Rest Haven officials have stopped trying to dissolve the city for now, he said.

Rest Haven is different from Gwinnett’s other 15 cities. Rest Haven City Hall is not located on City Hall Road, but it instead sits in a shopping center on Gainesville Highway. The city government has no website, although the council continues to meet once a month in the evenings. Buford handles most of Rest Haven’s obligations to its residents, taking care of all its court cases, zoning regulations and code enforcement.

The owners of several businesses located near City Hall know very little about Rest Haven or its officials. They have a Buford address and pay taxes to the same city, not Rest Haven.

Jackie Barrett, owner of Barrett’s Baked Goods next door to City Hall, said she sees meeting notices posted on the front door and hears the councilors quietly meet once a month. Dennis Butler, owner of nearby Horse Country, will occasionally see a man unlock City Hall and walk inside for a few minutes, locking it back up before he leaves.

Rest Haven, incorporated in 1938 to get rid of a “honky-tonk” by the same name, was once known as a “lawless” place with bootlegging, said former state Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford).

Growing up in Lilburn in the 1960s and ’70s, Unterman said teenagers used to go to the city to illegally buy beer on Sundays. In those days, the city had more than 150 residents.

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The shrinking city

Rest Haven’s city limits used to extend across both sides of Buford Highway. A significant portion of Rest Haven (not yet updated on Google Maps as pictured below) was absorbed by Buford after action from the state Legislature in 2016.

Billy Angel, owner of Angels of Earth Pine Straw and Mulch in what was once Rest Haven, lived in the city for a few years as a teenager. Angel recalled kids playing together, running up and down the streets. Now, there’s not much of a community left, he said.

Today, the city is home to auto repair shops, a few small businesses and vacant, graveled lots. Most recent development sits either on the edge or outside of Rest Haven’s new limits.

The city has sporadically given up its claim to select parcels over the past few years. It even succeeded in dissolving for a brief period in 2001. Superior court judges dissolved the city until it was reinstated in 2002 after a resident sued to keep it intact.

By request from Rest Haven officials, Unterman pushed through legislation in 2016 that got rid of nearly half the city. The move gave Buford claim over most of Rest Haven’s former boundaries on the eastern side of Buford Highway.

Unterman later tried to dissolve the rest of Rest Haven, but that effort ended due to legal complications in the process of ending its charter. “It’s as complicated dissolving as it is creating a city, and I didn’t realize that when I started doing it,” said Unterman, who left office this year.

Today it’s become harder to distinguish where Buford’s limits end and Rest Haven’s begin. The road signs marking Rest Haven’s limits are no longer there. Even finding a map that shows the current city outlines is hard. Google Maps provides only an outdated version of the city’s map.

It may become even harder to differentiate the two in the future, considering Rest Haven now abides by Buford’s zoning regulations. New development in the area will likely have brick or stucco architecture like nearby Buford, said Kim Wolfe, city clerk and planning director for Buford.

“We have a great relationship with Rest Haven,” said Bryan Kerlin, city manager of Buford. “Rest Haven’s regulations are similar to Buford’s regulations. As we move forward ... you’ll start to see things evolve in Rest Haven to look like they are in Buford.”

A current zoning map of Rest Haven, after Buford started handling all zoning, code enforcement and court cases for the city in 2016. (Courtesy of City of Buford)
A current zoning map of Rest Haven, after Buford started handling all zoning, code enforcement and court cases for the city in 2016. (Courtesy of City of Buford)