Despite resident protests, Atlanta won’t let go of Fulton neighborhood

Leroi Stanley cannot get the city of Atlanta to stop picking up his trash.

His home was in Atlanta briefly, before a court decided late last year that the city's annexation of his south Fulton County neighborhood was illegal. Now, Stanley and his Loch Lomond neighbors find themselves in the city of South Fulton, but Atlanta refuses to stop delivering services.

In addition to trash pickup, the city still answers 911 calls and Atlanta police still patrol the neighborhood, despite the city of South Fulton’s demands that Atlanta back off its turf.

“I guess they’re just planting the flag to keep the flag flying,” said Harvey Newman, a professor emeritus of public management and policy at Georgia State University. “It seems a little heavy-handed, but it’s a complicated case down there.”

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

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Loch Lomond, a tree-lined community with about 200 homes, has become the focal point in a high-stakes jurisdictional disagreement that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, and city against city. The latest flurry of court filings and cease-and-desist letters highlight rising tensions in an area that is on the last fault line of Fulton County's cityhood movement.

Jewel Johnson, one of the residents who filed a successful lawsuit to nullify Atlanta’s annexation, said the city’s move to keep providing services felt mean-spirited.

“In my opinion, they’re saying they’re above the law,” she said. “They’re hurting us more and more.”

The fight started in 2014, when a group of neighborhood residents circulated a petition to annex the unincorporated area into Atlanta, just one street over. The annexation to Atlanta went into effect July 1, 2016, but some residents in the neighborhood immediately balked, saying the petition was not done properly. The new city of South Fulton was taking shape simultaneously, and several Loch Lomond residents filed suit in hopes they could vote in favor of that city’s formation.

They won their lawsuit at the Georgia Court of appeals in October. The court overturned the year-and-a-half old Atlanta annexation, effectively placing the neighborhood in the city of South Fulton. In December, residents who were involved in the original petition to join Atlanta filed a counter lawsuit, saying if they couldn't be part of Atlanta, they wanted to be in unincorporated Fulton County.

The city plans “to continue to provide services to residents of the Loch Lomond community” until the lawsuit filed by the three neighbors who want to be in Atlanta has been decided, according to a letter to South Fulton officials from Nina Hickson, the Atlanta city attorney. In an email to Fulton County executives and the South Fulton city attorney, Hickson said the direction came from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Stanley said he thinks Atlanta's refusal to leave is a delay tactic to wear down South Fulton while residents' litigation is pending.

“It’s very childish, since they haven’t gotten their way,” Stanley said of Atlanta’s refusal to stop providing services in his subdivision. “Once again, they’re causing division in the neighborhood. They act as if they decide, and not the courts.”

In letters and court filings, South Fulton officials countered by saying Atlanta’s conduct is “egregious,” and its continuation of services is unconstitutional.

The state constitution prohibits one city from providing services to another city outside its boundaries without a contract to do so, South Fulton city attorney Emilia Walker said in a letter. Catherine Rowell, the South Fulton councilperson who represents the area, said Atlanta’s actions amounted to “blatant disregard” for the state appeals court, which refused to hear another Atlanta appeal.

Rowell said Atlanta’s obstinance puts neighborhood residents in peril.

“I think that’s unbelievably irresponsible,” Rowell said. “I don’t think Atlanta just likes to lose.”

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

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In a cease-and-desist letter, Walker cited a number of problems that could arise from Atlanta’s continued refusal to transfer 911 services, stop sanitation services, end police patrols and quit enforcing local ordinances. They range from unlawful fines and taxes to jeopardizing court cases by tainting arrests if Atlanta officers are found to be outside their jurisdiction.

South Fulton’s response in court papers said the disagreement creates confusion and hardship for residents, who could have to contend with double taxation and other issues. South Fulton has asserted itself by patrolling Loch Lomond with its officers, too.

Atlanta, for its part, doesn’t seem to be backing down, either. Michael Smith, an Atlanta spokesperson, said the city plans to maintain the status quo until “all pending disputes have been fully and finally resolved.”

Some residents see Atlanta’s determination as a plus.

Marshall Thomas and Joseph Jones, who bought their Loch Lomond house last May, said they moved to the community because it was in the city of Atlanta.

They said they preferred Atlanta's comprehensive trash collection to South Fulton's, which requires residents make a la carte choices from a variety of companies. They also want to be patrolled by the more-established Atlanta police department. On neighborhood social media groups, Jones said, residents complained about how long it took South Fulton police to respond when called.

“Overall, Atlanta is a mecca,” Jones said. “We weren’t interested in a new, start-up city.”

Leander Robinson, one of three residents who filed suit in December opposing the neighborhood’s placement in the city of South Fulton, said he didn’t want to talk about the lawsuit. The trio filed a request for an injunction in January, asking that South Fulton not be able to levy taxes or collect fees in their neighborhood while the litigation — which also asks to overturn a 2017 city council election — is pending. That request says residents’ constitutional rights are being “violated by South Fulton’s ever-broadening assertion of sovereign authority.”

Houses at the Loch Lomond Estates neighborhood in South Fulton. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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The other two plaintiffs, when contacted through their attorney, also declined to comment. Robbie Ashe, their attorney, has said the lawsuit is part of a broader struggle between South Fulton and Atlanta. The two cities also have been arguing about who will control land in the Fulton Industrial District, the last part of Fulton County that isn't in a city.

“It seems as if this neighborhood is being used as a tug-of-war between two municipalities,” said Newman, with Georgia State. “It seems to me the litigation needs to be solved before (Atlanta) gives up its claims.”

Newman said neither side had an incentive to give in. But the disagreement continues to have an effect on residents in the established, 1960s-era neighborhood. Jones said longtime residents who identified with Atlanta felt like they didn't have a voice when the annexation was overturned. Meanwhile, a group of residents who want to be in the new city feel like Atlanta is holding them hostage.

Raphael Ammons, who was part of that group, said he feels like Atlanta is “blatantly ignoring and sending the middle finger to the courts.”

“They’re sowing so much confusion and discontent in the community,” Ammons said. “All they’ve got to do is pull up their stuff and leave. Just leave.”