Judge: Atlanta annexation case ‘very strong’

The city of Atlanta has a strong argument that it should have the right to annex land in an unincorporated portion of Fulton County that has been off-limits for nearly 40 years, a State Supreme Court justice said Wednesday.

But whether Atlanta is able to bring the case remained an open question as the city and county sparred in court.

“Your case on the merits, to me, is very strong,” Justice David E. Nahmias told Robbie Ashe, an attorney representing Atlanta in the dispute. “Now, spend some time exploring how you can sue the county.”

At issue is a piece of land Atlanta acquired last year in the Fulton County Industrial District, an area that was set aside from potential annexations in 1979. Atlanta wants to make it part of the city; the county said no.

But what’s really at stake is control in South Fulton. It’s the last unincorporated area in Fulton County, and if it becomes a city, it will limit Atlanta’s ability to expand. In filings, Fulton County said Atlanta has “cast its longing eye on the Fulton County Industrial District.” The suit is an effort to win the high-value area, the filings said.

South Fulton residents are due to vote on cityhood in November. If they decide to become a city, the boundaries will be set July 1. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is trying to annex land there before that date.

A second Supreme Court case to be heard this summer will test whether Atlanta schools must expand as the city limits do — potentially paving the way for Atlanta to get bigger without requiring students to attend the city’s public schools.

After Fulton County rejected the city's request to annex land, Atlanta sued. Ashe said the constitutional amendment that created the Fulton district should not have been allowed. The state requires legislation to be about a single subject, but the referendum that approved the district was tied to legislation that eliminated Fulton County's ability to collect sales tax for schools in the city.

“They just took the unpopular one and the popular one and combined them,” Ashe said. “They just added it on as the next paragraph in the same thing. That’s textbook logrolling.”

Larry Ramsey, who represented Fulton County, disputed that it was the county that should be sued — he claimed that the county should be immune from a suit. And even if there were errors, he said, they were made by the legislature. Ramsey also argued that the two pieces were sufficiently related.

“This is a manufactured dispute,” he said.