Atlanta, Fulton County spar over annexation attempts

Atlanta has rushed to stake a claim on the last bits of unincorporated land in Fulton County in the past month, using an annexation process county leaders argue is fundamentally flawed and unfair.

This November, voters will decide whether to create the City of South Fulton. Ahead of that vote, officials in Atlanta — as well as Union City, College Park and Chattahoochee Hills — began the process to annex both residential and commercial areas that could have become part of the new city's tax base.

Atlanta officials contend that, because by law the City of South Fulton's boundaries were set Friday, the annexation attempts before that day are valid.

That has frustrated county leaders, who are limited in their ability to keep the unincorporated area intact for the vote.

The county says just because Atlanta and others want the land doesn’t mean they should get it. Fulton has delayed giving its blessing to some annexation requests in the hopes of stopping them until after the unincorporated area votes this fall.

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said the slew of annexations “was a desperate land-grab attempt by the city of Atlanta.”

“Primarily, we feel the citizens of the unincorporated area should be able to vote on whether they want to be a city or not,” Eaves said. “There’s some unfairness about this.”

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners heard more than a dozen annexation requests in the month of June, though it approved only three of them.

In order for an area to be annexed, those who live or own businesses there must petition to join a city. If enough signatures are collected, that city would hold a public hearing, then its city council would vote on the request. Atlanta and the other cities have voted to annex numerous areas.

Also Fulton County and Atlanta are sparring over the Fulton Industrial District. The state supreme court will decide later this year whether any city can annex the land, which is considered valuable commercial property.

State Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, who has been a supporter of the City of South Fulton, said he thinks the annexation process needs to be improved. He cited concerns about petitions that have old signatures and maps that have been altered since the petition process began. Bruce also said annexations by Atlanta could affect county schools, and displace students.

“The rush to annex has taken away people’s right to gather the facts,” he said. “You can’t draw a map around signatures. That’s a flaw in the process.”

Atlanta’s attempt to absorb the South Fulton community of Sandtown was tabled this week, after residents like Emmanuel Tillman showed up to object to the annexation.

Pamela McIver, who also lives in the area, complained about a lack of attention to crime and upkeep within the city limits.

“I want no part of the city,” she said. “Why, in God’s name, would anybody want to be a part of that?”

At an Atlanta city council meeting earlier this month, residents in other unincorporated areas to be annexed made clear that they were not interested in joining Atlanta. They disputed that all the signatures on the annexation petition were valid.

In Loch Lomond, one neighborhood that was taken in to the city, just more than 60 percent of property owners and registered voters approved the move. The law requires 60 percent approval.

Resident Jewel Johnson said she and others had filed suit objecting to the move.

Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said she understood the process had been “really, really difficult,” but that it was in the neighborhood’s best interest because the viability of the City of South Fulton wasn’t guaranteed.

“Annexation for a lot of people would be a no-brainer,” she said. “I don’t think anything led by the community should be called a land grab. That’s making an educated decision.”

A spokesman for Mayor Kasim Reed said the city would not comment on the slew of annexation attempts, and referred questions to Bottoms.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore told Loch Lomond residents attending the city council meeting that, if the majority of the residents of an area agrees to join Atlanta, it’s the city’s obligation to welcome them.

“We certainly cannot ignore 60 percent of people wanting to come into the city of Atlanta,” she said.

Fulton County and any county commissioners are limited in what they can do to stop annexations. Vice Chairman Liz Hausmann said she thought the process — which allows the annexing city to verify the signatures of residents vying to join it — is flawed. Her concern, she said, is whether the City of South Fulton can still be viable if all the annexations take place.

“It’s more and more difficult with a shrinking tax base to provide services in that area,” Hausmann said.

For every person like McIver, it seems, there’s someone like Rebecca Landers, who is glad to join the city.

Landers, who owns property on Cascade Road near I-285, said she was happy to be in unincorporated Fulton County. But with a new city possibly coming, she said, she would prefer to be governed by a known entity.

“One of the main things is, we always considered ourselves part of Atlanta,” Landers said. “I couldn’t imagine saying the City of South Fulton. … I’d rather go with Atlanta.”

There is some dispute about when the annexations must have been completed in order for the areas in question to join Atlanta, Union City, College Park, or Chattahoochee Hills.

“It may be an issue that the court may have to decide,” said land use attorney David Kirk.