Atlanta expansion unlikely to happen this year

A bold expansion of two Atlanta borders — encompassing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emory University and a chunk of south Fulton County — isn’t advancing among state legislators this year even as more neighborhoods show interest in joining the city’s ranks.

Georgia lawmakers were considering two bills, House Bill 586 and HB 587, that would have allowed voters in areas of Druid Hills and south Fulton to cast ballots on the issue this November.

With two days remaining in the legislative session, both have stalled amid squabbling between lawmakers over whether parts of unincorporated DeKalb and Fulton counties should be annexed. The proposed moves would add well more than 50,000 residents to Atlanta, the largest annexation in 50 years.

Rep. Pat Gardner, D-Atlanta, said she originally thought the Druid Hills annexation could advance from the local delegation because most of the city’s representatives supported it. But DeKalb legislators who opposed the plan argued they would have to sign off on HB 586 as well. The annexation area has grown in recent weeks, now covering nearly 35,000 residents and stretching from the county’s border to the eastern perimeter of I-285.

Even after at-times fiery meetings between the legislators, that conflict hasn’t been resolved. It could be addressed by a study committee of lawmakers that will review incorporation rules this summer and fall.

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“It’s pretty clear that it’s going to need a broader base of support in the DeKalb delegation to get it to move,” Gardner said of HB 586. “We need to wait and see what happens with (cityhood efforts in) Tucker and LaVista Hills. We’ll be working on smoothing out disagreements over the summer.”

The south Fulton annexation bill is floundering for similar reasons. Under that proposal, at least 20,000 Fulton residents, and potentially far more, could join Atlanta. Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration has also made moves that could allow for annexing parts of the Fulton Industrial District.

Several lawmakers have opposed the effort, instead favoring the proposed city of South Fulton measure. HB 514 is pending in the state Senate.

“Since 2013, I’ve talked to thousands of residents, and their preference is to be in a city of South Fulton,” said Rep. LaDawn Jones, D-Atlanta, who has publicly criticized Reed’s efforts to annex parts of Fulton. “(The Atlanta measure) was never vetted by citizens, boards and local governments — that’s not transparency.”

Atlanta Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, who represents a district in Southwest Atlanta, disagrees, noting the city of South Fulton effort is what originally prompted some residents to contact Atlanta leaders last year with hopes of annexation. She said she’s attended dozens of meetings on the invite of worried local residents.

“People are concerned about this unknown entity, and there’s an unknown entity in the city of South Fulton,” she said, adding that many have concerns about the stability of the proposed’s city tax base, especially compared to Atlanta’s.

The DeKalb annexation, however, was largely fueled by a desire among some Druid Hills residents to join Atlanta Public Schools after DeKalb County schools rejected the idea of a charter cluster, which would have given them independent management of several schools. Atlanta supporters have also praised the city for transportation planning, stable government and business development.

Anne Wallace, co-chairwoman of Together in Atlanta, a group that has been supporting the city’s eastward growth, said the group may have been “a little optimistic that we could whip in and do this in a year on our first try.” But she sees a silver lining to the current impasse: More neighborhoods have asked to join the effort.

The latest map, released last week, shows areas under consideration have grown to include neighborhoods that were left out of other cities’ territory. The annexations would be the city’s largest since the early 1950s, when Atlanta added Buckhead, Bolton, Adamsville, Lakewood Heights and others.

“It’s very nice to be in a situation where people are saying, ‘Will you take us too?’” Wallace said.

It remains unclear how schools would be affected if Atlanta gobbles up more DeKalb students, but the latest annexation area now includes about 70 percent of students who would matriculate into Druid Hills High. Along with the high school, Atlanta could also gain Briar Vista Elementary, Fernbank Elementary and McLendon Elementary if the annexation plan is eventually approved.

Melissa Mullinax, Reed’s senior adviser, repeated that the city welcomes those who want to join. “We believe a referendum is the way to do so and expect these conversations to continue.”

Gordon Jones, a retiree who has lived in unincorporated DeKalb for about nine years, said he is grateful HB 586 stalled. He doesn’t want to become part of Atlanta, he said, fearing his taxes would rise. And he thinks both the county and the city have problems with government corruption.

“It’s sometimes better to go with the devil you know than the devil you don’t know,” Jones said.

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