Amid annexation battle, Fulton County neighborhood split over identity

Jewel Johnson used to feel close to her south Fulton County neighbors. Over the three decades she’s lived in Loch Lomond Estates, she invited neighbors over for birthday lunches, tried to always say hello on the street and celebrated each year at the subdivision Christmas party.

But those strong relationships frayed after she and a cohort of neighbors sued in 2016 to stop their neighborhood's annexation into the city of Atlanta. As the court battle unfolded, Johnson said, people stopped waving and sometimes refused to answer the door when she knocked. She's stopped attending the holiday party, and her relationship with a close friend became so strained, Johnson deleted the woman's number from her phone.

“I really felt like we had a real good community, ‘til the annexation came along,” said Johnson, 67. “I don’t know if it will ever get back. I pray it will.”

Thus is life these days in Loch Lomond, a tree-lined suburban neighborhood of about 200 homes that was on the edge of Atlanta's expansion when it was developed in the mid-1960s. Now, the neighborhood finds itself on the last fault line in the Fulton cityhood movement that over the past 13 years has reshaped the county's politics and forged new community identities.

A Loch Lomond Estates neighborhood entrance sign. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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It's this struggle for identity that has pitted neighbor against neighbor in Loch Lomond. The community and its residents became collateral damage as the charge to incorporate areas across Fulton forced homeowners in the neighborhood, many of whom had lived together in harmony for decades, to suddenly take sides.

In 2014, a group of residents in the subdivision started a petition to annex the unincorporated area of Fulton into the city of Atlanta, just one street over. The successful petition, after the majority of neighbors signed on to join the city in 2016, caused a backlash among residents who resisted becoming part of Atlanta.

They sued on the grounds that the petition was not valid. In October, the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed and upended the annexation, saying the neighborhood was improperly annexed into Atlanta. That decision effectively placed Loch Lomond in the new city of South Fulton and set off a new wave of hard feelings among neighbors who say a small, vocal group of residents is overwhelming the majority's will.

For Johnson, too much was at stake to sit on the sidelines.

She had lived in Atlanta in the 1970s and 1980s, and still owns property in the city. But a series of events made her decide she didn’t want to be there any longer: She had one child, and was pregnant with twins, when the Atlanta child murders began in the late 1970s. When her children were young, Atlanta did little to respond to a drug dealer next door. And gentrification raised her property taxes, making it harder to afford her home, while services didn’t seem to improve. In 1989, she decided it was time to leave.

Decades later, when Loch Lomond neighbors began seeking signatures for the annexation petition, she hadn’t changed her mind about the city.

“Southwest Atlanta’s always on the back burner,” she said. “We get less from the city than anybody. …We can’t survive in Atlanta. Their interest is not in the little people like me.”

Pete Berry, 70, poses for a portrait in his car near the front of the Loch Lomond Estates neighborhood in South Fulton. Berry, who says he has lived in Loch Lomond Estates since 1985 and served as its president in the early 1990s, says that he is in support of the neighborhood being part of Atlanta largely because of tax concerns. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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‘We have been unannexed’

In many ways, the neighborhood had one of its own atop city hall at the time of the annexation two years ago. Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed grew up in Loch Lomond, and lived there when he was a state representative.

For resident William Shepherd, the idea of joining Atlanta had a lot of appeal. Shepherd, now in his 80s, is past president of the neighborhood homeowners’ association. And he’s so in favor of living in Atlanta that he refuses to believe the court decided otherwise.

He said he didn’t “have any hard feelings” toward neighbors who pushed for the annexation to be overturned. But at the same time, he questioned their motives, saying they should have respected the wishes of the majority of residents, who wanted to be in the city.

State law requires 60 percent of property owners and voters sign off on an annexation, though opponents questioned whether all the signatures were legitimate.

“I felt like people manipulated the community,” he said of those who filed suit. “I’d rather have my own choice.”

Shepherd moved to Loch Lomond 47 years ago during a period of sharp transition. As his and other black families moved in to what was originally considered a remote area of the county, many of the original white owners left the subdivision. For sale signs were common. The neighborhood, a bucolic setting with several lakes and homes on one-acre lots, attracted middle-class families who formed the basis of the community that is still in place today.

Shepherd said he preferred to join Atlanta over South Fulton because he thought an established city would be a better fit for aging residents. The city of South Fulton is still building up its police department and making decisions about fundamental parts of its government.

An Atlanta city limit sign is displayed near an entrance to the Loch Lomond Estates neighborhood in South Fulton. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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More than two years after the annexation was first finalized, in the summer of 2016, Shepherd thinks of himself as an Atlantan.

“I’m not going to say we’re out of Atlanta,” he said. “I’m not accepting it as fact that we have been unannexed.”

Other residents have been reluctant to share the depth of their feelings, not wanting to air neighborhood business in public. Some declined to discuss the annexation controversy on the record.

Lorraine Walton, a longtime resident, said the fact that several residents want to be in South Fulton “has created a divide.” And Emmanuel Tillman, who lives in the neighborhood next to Loch Lomond, said he’s had to get off his local Nextdoor app because of the amount of “sniping” between neighbors about the annexation.

Mary Harris, a 42-year resident who led the petition drive for annexation, said she still considers herself an Atlanta resident. She said those that want to stay in Atlanta aren’t giving up. But she doesn’t believe the legal dispute has changed the character of the friendly neighborhood.

“No one has stopped talking,” she said.

‘It’s just an uncomfortable feeling’

Still, Atlanta annexation opponents say they have experienced a different reality. Some say the neighborhood isn’t as welcoming to them as it once was. They describe behavior that’s hurtful, including being ignored by some neighbors.

Leroi Stanley, 45, grew up in Loch Lomond, later lived in Cobb County and moved back to the neighborhood several years ago to raise his children. He doesn’t want to be part of Atlanta and found advocates pushing the annexation to be overzealous in their efforts.

He objected when one neighbor asked his mother for his father’s death certificate so they could get him off the voter rolls and make it easier to get to the 60 percent of signatures needed for annexation. He said that moved him to question the annexation efforts. Shortly after, Stanley said, he stopped getting invitations to community meetings, including this year’s Christmas party.

“There’s been no more notices in my mailbox,” he said. “The neighborhood is definitely divided, and I would say rightfully so.”

Jerard Morton blows leaves in his front yard at the Loch Lomond Estates neighborhood subdivision in South Fulton. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Stanley and his anti-Atlanta annexation neighbors said Reed and other city officials tried to persuade residents by making lofty promises as they tried to build support for the annexation. Neighbors saw his visits to the largely African-American neighborhood as an effort to get more voters into the city who would be inclined to support Keisha Lance Bottoms in what would become a close mayor’s race last year between her and Mary Norwood. Bottoms eventually won by fewer than 800 votes.

Stanley didn't like that his children's education was disrupted by the annexation effort. They were moved from the Fulton County Schools to Atlanta Public Schools after the area was annexed. Still wary of the test cheating scandal, he doesn't trust his children's education to the city. He moved one child into Fulton schools after the court ruling, and plans to move the other two at summer break.

Other residents expressed different reasons to distrust the city and its leadership.

Evelyn Weaver, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 45 years, said she knew Reed as a child. But she didn’t like the mayor’s plan to displace two historic, black churches downtown to build Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Weaver, who was also involved in the lawsuit, said she grew up in Atlanta and didn’t want to go back.

The tensions from the Loch Lomond annexation battle have been hard, she said.

“It’s just an uncomfortable feeling,” she said.

Raphael Ammons, one of those involved with the lawsuit, said people in the neighborhood used to go out of their way to help each other, but that’s changed since the court case.

Ammons said he hopes time heals the divide, but said there’s “a lot of bad blood” between residents.

“People are angry they’re not going to be in Atlanta,” he said. “Some people don’t even speak to you. It’s just animosity, it’s tension.”

A sign is seen outside the home of Jewel Johnson, 67, in the Loch Lomond Estates neighborhood in South Fulton. Johnson, who is in support of Loch Lomond Estates being in South Fulton instead of Atlanta, helped spearhead the initiative to overturn the annexation, a process which she says lasted over two and a half years. Johnson has lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years. (Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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‘They’ve been so ugly to me’

Fulton County’s cityhood movement began in force in 2005, when Sandy Springs residents voted to incorporate. Since then, Johns Creek, Milton and Chattahoochee Hills also formed cities. But residents in what became the city of South Fulton weren’t interested. In 2007, they rejected a cityhood referendum with 80 percent of the vote, preferring the unincorporated status quo.

As annexations shrank the unincorporated area, cityhood proponents tried again. In 2016, residents approved a referendum to form the city of South Fulton, and they elected leaders the following year. South Fulton's transition period to assume services from county was finalized this fall.

Odie Donald, the South Fulton city manager, is hoping to bridge the divide between those who wanted to be in his city and those who preferred Atlanta. He is planning to hold community meetings to welcome Loch Lomond residents into South Fulton before the police, trash and other services transition to the new city in January.

Residents of Loch Lomond submitted a request to be annexed into the city of Atlanta in April 2015.

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Donald said he hopes to win residents’ trust and he thinks they will get used to their new reality, and even come to enjoy being South Fulton city residents.

“I believe they will end up very happy,” he said. “By law, we have to serve them and they have to be in the city. We’re going to make sure they have the highest level of service.”

Michael Smith, an Atlanta spokesperson, said the city was disappointed in the court’s ruling in October, and in a subsequent decision last month to deny a request that the court reconsider. City officials and some Loch Lomond residents continue to explore options for other ways to stay in Atlanta, he said.

As for Johnson, she hasn’t spoken at length to people on the pro-Atlanta side since well before the court ruling in October. Even though the episode has taken its toll, she’s happy with her decision to pursue the lawsuit. She hopes time will repair strained friendships, but she isn’t sure.

“They’ve been so ugly to me,” she said.

“I don’t know if this thing’s ever going to heal,” she added.