Race rears its head as Eagle’s Landing cityhood vote nears

In a month, Stockbridge residents will vote on whether or not to separate into two cities — one centered around a gated golf community and the other encompassing the less-affluent town center.

At the heart of the fractious contest is a question that has roiled the Henry County town: Is the secession movement to create a city of Eagle's Landing an effort to draw stark racial boundaries in a fast-changing community?

An examination of the Eagle’s Landing cityhood effort, based on interviews with more than two dozen community leaders and citizens, reveals that race is an issue, but the debate is being shaped by other forces as well, including economic status and community aspirations.

City of Stockbridge City Manager Randy Knighton talks to residents of Moss Pointe Subdivision during a gathering at Regina Lewis-Ward's home about an upcoming ballot measure to make Eagle's Landing a city. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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Take Charles Marshall, an African-American and Democrat who lives in the golf community. He likes the idea of breaking away from Stockbridge. For him, it's about revitalizing south metro and giving tech companies and white-collar entrepreneurs reasons to locate south of I-20 instead of going to Midtown or Alpharetta.

And yet, he recognizes Eagle’s Landing supporters have used language at times that could be interpreted as racially divisive and could turn off some African-American residents.

“I’ve told the committee that helped put this on the ballot that they need to do a better job at explaining” the purpose of cityhood, he said, adding that “In my polling of people, just going door to door asking them if they support cityhood, it seems more whites are for it than blacks.”

The secession campaign comes as the south metro county — once a rural exurb mostly known for its Hampton race track — has seen a dramatic demographic shift as the population has expanded over the past two decades.

This rapid change has helped feed a narrative that white residents see Eagle’s Landing cityhood as a way to hold onto power as the county diversifies.

“There is a tendency in many cases toward defensiveness on the part of established residents in a community who sometimes feel threatened by folks who are different from them, and that difference can be racial and it can be economic,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

City of Stockbridge Assistant City Manager Camilla Moore talks to residents of Moss Pointe Subdivision during a gathering at Regina Lewis-Ward’s home about an upcoming ballot measure to make Eagle’s Landing a city. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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The cityhood movement highlights the tensions that can flare in communities on the edge of metro Atlanta experiencing rapid population shifts. It’s not always about black and white, but often a struggle between the haves and have-nots.

T.E. Valliere-White, another African American cityhood supporter who lives in the gated community, said old stereotypes of a country club don’t provide an accurate picture of Eagle’s Landing. As many as 40 percent to 45 percent of its residents are minorities.

“It’s a perception that I had,” said Valliere-White. “When I moved here, I couldn’t believe how many black people lived here.”

Henry is routinely listed among the fastest growing counties in the metro area and the nation.

From 1980 to 2010, the population grew from 36,309 to 203,926. During that 30-year period, white residents went from comprising 81.5 percent of the population to 52.5 percent, according to figures provided by IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System at the University of Minnesota.

By 2015, the county’s white residents comprised 47.3 percent, according to the latest figures from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The minority population, meanwhile, has grown from 18.5 percent in 1980 to 49.4 percent in 2015, according to population data.

Recent political developments have added to the racial overtones shading the debate. Earlier this year, Stockbridge, a town of about 28,000, elected its first black mayor and an all black city council. Divisions among Henry's delegation to the state legislature over the Eagles Landing proposal broke along racial lines — those who supported cityhood were white, while those against it were black.

And the unique nature of the Eagle's Landing proposal has amped up suspicions that something else is at play. If the referendum is adopted, it will be the first time a city is created by taking land from an established town. Some see it as a test to determine if wealthier communities could be permitted to secede from their less affluent neighbors, such as Buckhead from Atlanta.

Stockbridge leaders held a community meeting Wednesday to explain their opposition to Eagle’s Landing cityhood at Eagle’s Landing Country Club. Months earlier cityhood supporter Vikki Consiglio (at microphone) held a press conference outside the facility after the legislature allowed Eagle’s Landing residents to create their own town. LEON STAFFORD/AJC.

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Vikki Consiglio, one of the architects of Eagle’s Landing cityhood, has consistently countered arguments that race is driving those pushing for secession. She said the group behind cityhood is diverse. Consiglio, who is white, plans to run for mayor if Eagles Landing becomes a city. She said the residential population of the new town will be majority minority: 47 percent black, 39 percent white, 8 percent Asian and 6 percent Latino.

“It has nothing to do with race,” she said.

Still, white voters stand to gain. Just by numbers alone, white political power in a new city would increase from what it is in Stockbridge today, said Joshua Meddaugh, an associate professor of political science at Clayton State University.

Currently, blacks residents make up 53 percent of Stockbridge’s voting age population, while white residents make up 32 percent.

In a city of Eagle’s Landing, black citizens would comprise 44 percent of the voting age population, while white citizens would comprise 43 percent.

“That’s what needs to be focused on if people are to understand the race issue,” he said. “I’m not sure everybody gets that.”

Stockbridge officials have sought to make that argument in one of three state and federal lawsuits the city has filed to try to stop the referendum. It's argued in court filings that the referendum is unconstitutional under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause because it would dilute and disenfranchise African-American voters.

Judy Smith, who is white, heard arguments from both sides before deciding to back the effort to make Eagle’s Landing Henry’s fifth city. She said Stockbridge for years has unfairly distributed tax dollars taken from Eagle’s Landing to other parts of the community for services such as libraries, trash pickup and parks.

“It seems to me that it should be closer to a one-to-one exchange,” she said of the investment of tax dollars. “The money you collect here, shouldn’t it be used here?”

Map of Stockbridge and proposed city of Eagles Landing

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Opponents of the proposal say the stakes couldn't be higher for the health of the entire community. They say if half of its population and businesses are removed, particularly areas with such affluence, Stockbridge will be hobbled with debt and obligations that will be bad for everyone.

Regina Lewis-Ward, an African-American, prefers to focus on who gets to vote in the referendum instead of race. Lewis-Ward, who is running to represent state House District 109 as a Democrat, said it’s unfair to allow only those who would live in the city of Eagle’s Landing to vote because their decision will have just as much impact on what happens to Stockbridge if they depart.

“That’s the piece I find most troubling because that’s not what democracy is about,” she said. “It’s about everyone having a voice.”

James Carmichael, who is black and lives in the country club, believes his neighbors who support the proposal are being driven by a misguided notion that drawing lines on a map will help attract high-end stores like Whole Foods.

If a retailer was not interested before because residents don’t fit their income profile, he said, it’s unlikely to change just because the community has a new name.

“This will have an adverse affect on Stockbridge,” he said. “And why would we want to take something from them and have an impoverished city outside our gates. It doesn’t make any sense.”

The story so far:

  • May: Gov. Nathan Deal signs bills allowing Eagle's Landing cityhood to be put on November ballot; Stockbridge leaders seek injunction to stop vote.
  • July: Henry County judge sides with Eagle's Landing cityhood backs, allowing vote to proceed
  • August: Municipal bonding arm of Capital One sues to stop Eagle's Landing cityhood vote in U.S. District Court.
  • September: U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May hears arguments in Eagle's Landing lawsuits.
  • October: The Georgia Supreme Court ruled against the city of Stockbridge's request to halt the referendum.
  • October: U.S. District Court Judge Leigh Martin May declined to halt the referendum, but also clarified that the new town, if incorporated, would be responsible for a portion of its former community's municipal debt.
  • Nov. 6: Voters to decide whether Eagle's Landing to become a city unless judges step in and stop the referendum.