The quest for cityhood in Buckhead has several hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, but leaders behind a new group exploring the issue say they are confident they have a chance.
At a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday evening, a group of residents behind the Buckhead Exploratory Committee said they are raising money to study whether seceding from the city of Atlanta is a viable path forward for Buckhead, an area of town known for its wealth, political influence and high-end shopping options.
The idea is opposed by several city and community leaders, including some within Buckhead and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. They argue creating a new city government would be divisive and hamper the city of Atlanta’s budget by taking away a large chunk of its tax base.
Sam Lenaeus, a local realtor and the president of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, said during the town hall that they are simply looking for solutions to pressing community issues, including a rise in homicides and street racing.
He also said Buckhead gets a “minimal return on taxes in the way of our city services.” He said Buckhead makes up about 20% of Atlanta’s population and pays roughly 45% of the taxes.
The proposal to break Buckhead away from Atlanta gained steam in 2020 as more residents in Buckhead grew frustrated about rising crime and late-night street racing.
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
The Buckhead group said it plans to conduct polling on the issue, which could determine whether or not it should pursue cityhood. The organization has not said how long the process might take or how much money it ultimately hopes to raise.
Buckhead was first annexed into Atlanta along with other areas of the city in 1952 under former Mayor William B. Hartsfield. At the time, the move was racially motivated: Hartsfield wanted to offset Atlanta’s growing Black population and political power.
Now, the racial dynamics surrounding the desire for Buckhead to secede are hard to ignore. Buckhead is majority-white, and the Atlanta it would leave behind is predominantly Black.
In the last several decades, some have seen race as an underlying element in many of the cityhood movements in Atlanta’s suburbs, as predominantly white and wealthy enclaves in majority-Black counties incorporate and form their own cities to have more control over local decisions and public safety. None of the leaders behind the cityhood pushes said race was a factor.
In Henry County, Stockbridge residents voted in 2018 on whether a portion of the city should break off and form the city of Eagles Landing. At the time, race was an issue in the conversation, as Black residents would have made up a smaller portion of the Eagles Landing population. But the debate was also shaped by economic status and community aspirations; the Eagles Landing area was considered more affluent than the rest of Stockbridge.
Ultimately, a referendum to make Eagle’s Landing Henry County’s fifth city failed at the ballot box.
“Race is an underlying issue in a lot of things, but not in the same way it was” when Buckhead became part of the city decades ago, said Ronald Bayor, a Georgia Tech history professor who has written a book about the history of race relations in Atlanta. “Maybe class would be more of an a issue now, in terms of this wealthy area breaking away from the city. ... Today I hear more of city services and class as the issue.”
The Buckhead Exploratory Committee does not have information on its website about who makes up the group’s leadership, but Lenaeus said it is a diverse group of residents compelled to speak out about safety and wellbeing in Buckhead.
For Buckhead to be deannexed from the city and form its own government, it would have to go through the Georgia General Assembly, according to the Georgia Municipal Association. The idea would also likely have to be approved by voters through a ballot referendum.
In Buckhead’s case, it could run into a stumbling block simply surrounding its name — the small town of Buckhead, Georgia (population: 222) already exists in Morgan County.
Lenaeus said his organization is still in the study phase and has not spoken with any state representatives or senators. He said the legal precedent for secession has been proven by Eagle’s Landing, which faced a number of legal challenges before residents voted on the idea.
Some influential business groups in Buckhead oppose the cityhood idea. The Buckhead Coalition said in a statement Tuesday that pursuing cityhood would be unnecessarily divisive and not feasible.
“While we understand the frustrations that have led others to begin exploring that possibility, we believe that the best path forward for both Buckhead and Atlanta is to address our very real challenges cooperatively. We will continue to dedicate our efforts and our resources every day to doing so,” the statement said.