Druid Hills considers becoming part of Atlanta

Residents in the Druid Hills neighborhood, one of the oldest and wealthiest communities in the Atlanta area, will soon consider a key question about their future: Should they stay or go?

In coming months, residents will decide whether to remain part of unincorporated DeKalb County or join the city of Atlanta.

The Druid Hills area, which includes Emory University and the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, has the potential to change Atlanta’s tax base, educational system, racial makeup and political landscape if it’s annexed.

About 4,500 Druid Hills households will be mailed informational materials about their options in the next two or three weeks. Later this fall, they’ll be asked to complete surveys about their preference, said Anne Wallace, chairwoman of the Druid Hills Civic Association 2014 Citizens Survey Committee.

Some Druid Hills residents want more of a voice in their local government representation, Wallace said. As nearby communities like Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker push to become cities, Druid Hills residents fear they’d be separated from the rest of the county and see a decline in the quality of government services, she said.

“It comes down to Druid Hills having a say in what our future local governance will be,” she said. “The more cities that form, the less resources there will be to support county services. Those of us left are going to have to foot a bigger bill.”

But many aren’t certain joining Atlanta would be better. Residents would have to pay city taxes, and their county-run schools could potentially become part of Atlanta’s public school system.

Located just east of Atlanta, Druid Hills had a population of about 14,500 people with an estimated median household income of $67,088, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. By comparison, Atlanta’s population was 420,000 in 2010, and the ARC projected the city’s median household income at $40,692 in 2014.

Atlanta officials have held ongoing talks with Druid Hills residents for more than a year, appearing at community events to pitch the benefits of joining the city, alongside representatives from DeKalb. DeKalb CEO Lee May has said communities should be able to join cities if they want to, and he doesn’t have an official position on what should happen to Druid Hills, said spokesman Burke Brennan.

“The city is interested in the (community) and ready to hear from the civic association,” said Melissa Mullinax, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed.

Residents had mixed views about the prospect of becoming part of Atlanta.

“I’m not interested in changing what’s been working. I’m cool staying in unincorporated DeKalb,” said Rob Mallard, a Druid Hills resident as he carried his son on his shoulders during a walk near Emory University. “I don’t know what you gain from trading one for the other.”

But, while Mallard was lukewarm about the idea, some of his neighbors feel differently.

District 6 Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan said some sections of the area have approached the city with requests to be annexed, believing their property values would increase.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation five years ago, in 2009, when the direction of the city was very different,” he said. “People are seeing the city of Atlanta turning around and want to be a part of it.”

Mullinax said it’s not yet known how much property tax revenue Druid Hills would bring to the city in a potential annexation because the boundaries haven’t yet been drawn.

Public education likely would be a key concern. Druid Hills residents voted last August to form a “charter cluster” — a high school and six feeder schools managed by a nonprofit organization rather than DeKalb County Schools’ central office — but the county school board on a 5-4 vote rejected the proposal.

A renewed charter cluster petition is pending with the DeKalb school district. Atlanta school board Chairman Courtney English said this week it was premature to discuss whether the city school system would be amenable to charter schools in Druid Hills.

Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall, whose district — like Wan’s — could potentially absorb the addition, said annexing the community would impact city services, such as sanitation and police. But he expressed confidence those issues can be easily resolved.

He sees adding the community as a boon to property tax rolls. And Hall — who, along with Council President Ceasar Mitchell, is seen as a top contender for the 2017 mayoral race — said he anticipates the addition would have an impact on politics.

“It would bring a well-heeled, white, professional, relatively wealthy group into our voting mix. And they tend to have a high turnout,” he said.

If Druid Hills became part of Atlanta, the city would retain its black majority, according to the ARC. Atlanta was 54 percent black in 2010, and it would become about 53 percent black if Druid Hills were included in its borders. About 8 percent of Druid Hills residents are black.

Michael Leo Owens, an Emory political science professor, agreed that adding Druid Hills to Atlanta has the potential to change the political landscape.

“It would be consequential electorally, even if you added just a couple of households in Druid Hills to the election rolls,” he said.

He said a potential annexation would be a win for the city and a nod to Reed’s leadership.

Some Druid Hills residents have suggested that their neighborhood become a city, join the proposed city of Briarcliff-Lakeside or become part of the city of Decatur.

None of those options appears likely, in large part because Emory University has expressed concerns about joining a new city that could divide its campus. As for Decatur, the city school system is already at its capacity and its government doesn’t want to add more residential properties.

The university is monitoring community meetings about the creation of cities, and it will weigh the alternatives, according to a statement provided by spokeswoman Elaine Justice.

Those who live in Druid Hills remain divided about what to do, said Justin Critz, president of the Druid Hills Civic Association.

“We’re trying to say, ‘Look people, this is coming at you. Think about it,’” he said. “It’s hard to get a sense or a really strong feeling from the majority of people to go any particular way.”

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