Au revoir: Rest Haven seeks to cease as metro city

“It’s a great city,” the long-time mayor of Rest Haven says from his couch. “Show me one any better.”

Except he’s not talking about his own small town. No, Kenneth Waycaster saves his praise for Buford, the behemoth that surrounds Rest Haven. The behemoth that this spring annexed half of the city and will take in the other half next year, if all goes as planned.

Rest Haven straddles the Gwinnett-Hall county line along Buford Highway. It’s a mile-long strip of car dealerships, auto repair shops and mobile homes. Tall grass, gravel lots and rusted-out cars are a common sight just down the road from Buford’s massive city hall and community center.

“It was always colorful,” said Lynn Bowman, curator of the Museum of Buford who as a child passed through the city on his way to school. “It’s kind of an eyesore, but it’s our eyesore.”

This is not the first time Rest Haven, population 35, has tried to disappear. More than a decade ago, it succeeded — for a little while.

“I guess we did it the wrong way,” Waycaster said of the previous attempt in 2001. At the time, two residents filed suit, saying Rest Haven (at the time it boasted more than 100 residents) didn’t provide required services. The city agreed.

Superior Court judges dissolved the city. But Eddy Robinson, whose grandfather was a city founder, sued to keep the city intact, arguing that it provided enough services to keep its charter.

Rest Haven had no zoning laws, and Robinson wanted to develop his property with fewer restrictions than he would find in the counties, or in Buford.

He won, and the town was reinstated in 2002. But the apartments he talked about then were never built.

Robinson didn’t want to discuss Rest Haven now.

Rest Haven, established in 1938, was formed to get rid of a "honky-tonk," Bowman said. After it was reinstated in 2002, he expected city leaders would eventually come around to dissolving it again.

This time, Rest Haven did it through the legislature. Sen. Renee Unterman, who sponsored the bill earlier this year, said when she was a Gwinnett County commissioner in the 1990s, Rest Haven was known for its bootlegging and its “houses of ill repute.”

Buford agreed to eliminate Rest Haven’s eyesores, Unterman said, which is one of the reasons she supported the legislation that let the city annex the property on the east side of Buford Highway in Gwinnett.

Unterman said she plans to do the other side of the road next session. She only has purview in Gwinnett, though, and it is unclear whether Hall County’s portion of Rest Haven will be annexed, as well.

While it’s rare for a city to try to eliminate itself, it is not unheard of. The last one in Georgia to do so was Lithia Springs, in 2001. And though Rest Haven still has a mayor and council, and still collects SPLOST tax dollars from county government, it’s done little to act as a city. The last correspondence with the state Department of Community Affairs was in 2009, spokeswoman Jana Wiggins said.

Over the past several years, plenty of Rest Haven residents whose property bordered Buford have voluntarily been annexed into the city, Buford city attorney Gregory Jay said. He said the full-scale annexation keeps the city from “being picked off incrementally.”

Still, some landlords and business owners are nervous about the annexation. They worry that the city will require them to upgrade their properties to meet Buford’s higher standards.

Some people don’t know the difference. Tony Swain has lived in Rest Haven for about a year, but already tells people he lives in Buford if he’s giving them his address.

“Everybody in the city wants to join the city of Buford,” Waycaster said. “It’s just a city that don’t need to be a city.”

Waycaster, 65, has been mayor since 1988. He said he’s long been ready to do away with the town. He expects no ceremony when it’s finally done.

Though he acknowledged the annexation and a Department of Transportation plan to widen Buford Highway will likely change the character of the area, he said residents who already get most of their services from Buford likely won’t see a difference.

“We are so small. We’re doing away with this small town,” Waycaster said. “There’s no one left to do nothing.”

Jeff Wheeler, a former resident, said he’s open to the changes Buford will bring.

“It’s kind of weird Rest Haven even exists,” he said.

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