Atlanta’s South Fulton annexation goals knocked back by court rulings

With a string of unfavorable court rulings, Atlanta is on the ropes in its efforts to annex land in the southern part of Fulton County.

The city tried to expand its boundaries prior to a Nov. 8 referendum that, if approved, will create the City of South Fulton and eliminate the last pieces of unincorporated land in the county — and some of the last places Atlanta could absorb in order to grow.

While a number of Atlanta’s annexations went through without a challenge, the city’s efforts to expand into five residential and two commercial areas drew lawsuits. Atlanta is not yet down for the count, but the decisions have slowed the city’s momentum.

The decisions, Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said, have shown that Atlanta can’t “seize” areas around the county.

"They were not successful," he said. "To me, the whole situation has been made murky."

Monday the Georgia Supreme Court rejected a bid by the city to annex the Fulton Industrial District, an area that has long been of interest to Atlanta for its potential contributions of $18 million to $19 million to the tax rolls. Since the 1970s, a law has been on the books that prohibits the annexation of the area. The court dismissed Atlanta's case, saying there was nothing for it to resolve since Atlanta had never passed a local ordinance to annex the property. A second case in front of the State Supreme Court, regarding whether Atlanta Public Schools must expand if the city expands, has not yet been decided.

In a ruling last month, a Fulton County judge overturned the annexations of one commercial and four residential areas, saying the city did not finish its annexation process before a deadline to set the boundaries for the proposed new City of South Fulton.

Additionally, Fulton Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey wrote in his ruling, Atlanta did not ensure than the annexation petitions were valid and did not wait the required amount of time to approve them. Uncertainty about the schools issue, pending a decision from the State Supreme Court, means the city cannot know that annexation is in residents’ best interest, the decision said. Residents and property owners brought the suit, saying Atlanta’s annexation process is flawed.

An appeal to the State Supreme Court won’t be heard until after the election, meaning residents in those areas — who were temporarily in Atlanta — will have the chance to vote in the City of South Fulton referendum.

And in a case involving the residential neighborhood of Loch Lomond, a Fulton County judge has proposed allowing residents in the disputed area to vote on both Fulton County and Atlanta issues, since it seems unlikely that a conclusion will be reached prior to the start of early voting. Some absentee ballots have already been sent out. In Atlanta, there are two transportation-related taxes on the ballot, while unincorporated Fulton County residents would vote on a different transportation tax and would decide whether to create the City of South Fulton. In Loch Lomond, residents said Atlanta did not give proper notification of its annexation plans and did not ensure that the signatures it collected were valid.

A spokesperson for Atlanta declined to comment on the effect of the rulings, but Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said previously that he would like to use annexation to expand Atlanta’s population.

The decisions, Eaves said, are “certainly good news.” Atlanta’s annexation attempts are an effort to increase the city’s tax base at the expense of a viable City of South Fulton, he said, and the areas Atlanta has gone after are “some of the more affluent residential areas.” If Atlanta takes too much, the City of South Fulton would not have the tax base to support itself as a city.

“Annexation continues to be the death by a thousand cuts,” Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the city said Atlanta still thinks the prohibition on annexation in the Fulton Industrial area should be overturned, and land owners there should be able to choose whether to pursue annexation into Atlanta. The city will evaluate its options going forward, the statement said.

Reed’s administration has sent letters to property owners, including on Fulton Industrial Boulevard, inviting them to join the city. An area can be annexed into the city of 60 percent of property owners and registered voters approve of the move.

“To be clear, the geographic change I have opposed openly is the incorporation of a new City of South Fulton…” Reed said in a Dec. 2015 statement. “A new municipality would cause the city of Atlanta to be landlocked, limiting future expansions and creating a disproportionate impact on the rights of other neighborhoods to choose their future.”

Atlanta Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms said previously that annexation “would be a no-brainer” for a lot of people. Annexations are led by the community, she said. And though Fulton County paints Atlanta’s expansion as a land grab, Bottoms said it is simply business owners and residents “making an educated decision.”

Both Robert Ammons and Dominque Huff learned that their homes would be annexed into Atlanta after their neighbors had gone through the petition process, and included their land. Neither signed up to join Atlanta.

Ammons is party to a lawsuit that is trying to stop the annexations of the Cascade Business Corridor, Danforth Road, The Cottages at Cascade, Cascade Manor and Cascade Falls, areas that have been in and out of the city. Huff, who lives in Loch Lomond, said he would prefer living in Atlanta to joining a new city.

Both Huff and Ammons said the debate has become heated between neighbors, some of whom have stopped speaking to each other.

“It’s a major issue in this area,” Ammons said.

Ammons, who said the cost of his water bill rose when he was annexed into Atlanta, said he doesn’t “want to be part of that establishment in downtown Atlanta.”

But Huff said he’s happy to be in Atlanta, even if he didn’t choose it. Since Atlanta took over his trash pickup, he gets access to recycling. Broken street signs have been fixed.

“You got out-voted,” he said of neighbors who are trying to overturn the annexations. “I believe in majority rules.”