Has metro Atlanta’s move toward cityhood peaked?

After eight cities popped up around metro Atlanta over the last decade, lawmakers approved two more to appear on the ballot in November. Voters will decide whether to incorporate Stonecrest and South Fulton.
After eight cities popped up around metro Atlanta over the last decade, lawmakers approved two more to appear on the ballot in November. Voters will decide whether to incorporate Stonecrest and South Fulton.

Credit: Steve Lopez

Credit: Steve Lopez

New metro cities and their populations

Brookhaven: 51,079

Chattahoochee Hills: 2,610

Dunwoody: 48,000

Johns Creek: 83,102

Milton: 36,662

Peachtree Corners: 40,531

Sandy Springs: 101,908

Tucker: 33,301

Source: U.S. Census 2014 estimates, Georgia Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment Office

Two more cities may be put on the map in the fall, but metro Atlanta's steady march toward turning unincorporated areas into municipalities finally could be slowing down.

If the residents of South Fulton and Stonecrest decide in November to incorporate, it may mark the climax of the region's 11-year cityhood movement. The reason? There simply aren't that many places left that are good candidates to become cities.

Fulton County would have no land left for new cities to form, and in DeKalb County, where Stonecrest is located, talk has turned more to annexation instead of founding new governments.

Even if voters spurn new cities, a slowdown is likely still on the horizon. The rejection could give elected leaders pause when considering whether they should sign off on forming more local governments.

“I actually do think there’s a decline” in cityhood proposals, said Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, the chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee. “A lot of it was driven by a perception of dysfunctional governments and people paying for services they didn’t feel like they were getting.”

A decade of incorporations addressed many of those concerns.

Eight new cities have come online since Sandy Springs started the movement in 2005 as residents sought more control of their governments and tax dollars. As a result, the metro Atlanta region has been increasingly divided into smaller jurisdictions. Only two cityhood votes have failed during that period — one of which was South Fulton nine years ago.

Supporters of South Fulton and Stonecrest say they want some of the same benefits residents of other new cities have seen: business growth, community planning and accountable town leaders. The Georgia General Assembly last week approved putting the cityhood proposals on the ballot.

South Fulton would include nearly 100,000 people in a jagged area between Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the city of Atlanta, while Stonecrest would cover 50,000 residents near Stonecrest Mall, along I-20 surrounding Lithonia.

“We’ll finally be able to make the change we want to see happen in our community,” said Plez Joyner, a member of the Stonecrest City Alliance. “This is historic.”

In South Fulton, cityhood leaders expressed similar sentiments.

“People in North Fulton should not be making decisions about what happens in South Fulton,” said state Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, who sponsored the South Fulton bill. “They should live in boundaries of their governing.”

Not all residents are so sure.

Some fear cityhood also will open the door to ineffective or corrupt local leaders, increase taxes or change the character of their communities. They would prefer to work with existing county governments to fix their problems rather than add another set of elected officials.

Roland Cooper, who lives in South Fulton, doesn’t think enough people in the community are sufficiently qualified to govern effectively. He’s worried that any decisions they make won’t be in the best interest of the area.

In Stonecrest, Judi Harms signed an online petition urging Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the cityhood legislation.

“It will merely add another layer of taxes and officials — another aggravation to the ordinary taxpayer,” Harms said.

South Fulton had the chance to incorporate once before, in 2007. The vote failed, with 85 percent of voters opposed. Supporters of today’s movement say the number of voters was small and that many were uninformed.

Rafer Johnson, a cityhood proponent, didn’t vote in that first referendum. He said residents have learned their lesson: They need to educate voters.

“Circumstances change,” he said. “We have a right to make a different decision.”

Last year, voters narrowly turned down a proposal for the city of LaVista Hills, which would have stretched from near Emory University to the eastern edge of I-285. And state lawmakers turned away an attempt this year to found the large city of Greenhaven, which would have included nearly 300,000 residents in south DeKalb. There was significant community opposition to the idea.

Opinions on forming new cities may be changing. Some argue they damage existing communities.

“It’s just so inefficient to have such fractured government, and the more we see what happens in these new cities over time, the more this honeymoon is going to be over,” said Marjorie Snook of DeKalb Strong.

In South Fulton, the city of Atlanta floated a proposal that would divvy the unincorporated area up among neighboring cities if a vote did not happen, or if it fails. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been outspoken about his interest in annexing parts of the unincorporated area, and a spokeswoman said that hasn’t changed.

Atlanta and the county are in litigation over whether the city can annex parts of Fulton Industrial Boulevard. The area is part of the proposed new city, but the case is slated to go to the state Supreme Court next month.

“I think that joining a new city of South Fulton vs. the city of Atlanta, I don’t think the decision is even close,” Reed said in 2014. “I think joining a city of South Fulton would be an awful financial decision.”

Those who side with the mayor point out there are benefits to joining an existing functioning city as opposed to dealing with the growing pains that come from starting over.

A 2014 feasibility study by Georgia State University indicated that a city of South Fulton would be viable; the area already largely supports itself through a tax it pays to the county.

Some residents who are worried about being annexed into Atlanta have said they are concerned about what would happen to county schools if they’re brought into Atlanta.

Still, it’s up to the cityhood proponents to convince people like South Fulton resident Donna Marie Johnson.

“I’m still pretty confused about how it would benefit me,” she said of a new city. “Everybody that I’m close to, they seem confused, too.”

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