Ruling could pave way for Atlanta annexation

Mayor Kasim Reed, who has sought to expand Atlanta’s boundaries, won a key court victory Monday. (Bob Andres / AJC file photo)
Mayor Kasim Reed, who has sought to expand Atlanta’s boundaries, won a key court victory Monday. (Bob Andres / AJC file photo)

Atlanta notched a legal victory Monday that could allow it to annex key parts of unincorporated Fulton County and make it harder to form a new city in the area.

Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Gail Tusan struck down a law that prevented Atlanta from annexing a property it owns in the Fulton Industrial District on Fulton Industrial Boulevard.

But the ruling also could open other areas to annexation by the city. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has made a big push to expand the city’s borders in unincorporated Fulton and DeKalb counties.

“This victory allows the city to exercise its right to annex property within the FID,” Reed spokeswoman Anne Torres said Tuesday. “The court simply restored to FID property owners the right to determine annexation.”

Fulton County officials declined to comment Tuesday. They have previously expressed concern that an annexation of the industrial district could affect county revenues used to pay for services in unincorporated areas.

Atlanta filed the lawsuit against Fulton County in March amid a big push to expand its boundaries. Two bills that would have allowed it to expand its borders into south Fulton and DeKalb stalled in the General Assembly that same month.

The lawsuit sought to overturn a 1979 local amendment to the Georgia Constitution that prohibits any city from annexing property in the Fulton Industrial District.

In her ruling Monday, Tusan said the amendment violated state constitutional provisions requiring any such measures to be limited to a single subject. She also ruled the General Assembly improperly re-enacted the amendment in 1983 and 1986.

Though the legal arguments are obscure, the ruling could have substantial real-world consequences, allowing Atlanta to expand far beyond the single property at issue in the lawsuit.

A big expansion of Atlanta southward would cut into the boundaries of a proposed City of South Fulton. A bill allowing residents of the area to incorporate passed the state House of Representatives but failed to pass the Senate.

A 2014 study found the proposed city of about 90,000 people would be economically viable. But existing cities like Chattahoochee Hills and Union City have continued to annex parts of the unincorporated area, chipping away at its potential population and tax base.

A supporter of a proposed City of South Fulton called the judge’s ruling a wake-up call. Rafer Johnson, who has led efforts to form the new city, said unincorporated residents must decide whether to support the new city or choose an existing one to live in.

“For people who want cityhood, it’s time for them to realize they have to step up and fight for this,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he believes a City of South Fulton would be viable even with a significant Atlanta expansion. But if annexations continue, he said, another economic impact study might be needed to prove it.

A separate lawsuit filed by Atlanta would strike down another state law that requires neighborhoods annexed into the city to become part of the city school district. Many parents in the area object to an Atlanta annexation because their children would have to change schools. The lawsuit is still pending.

Staff writer Katie Leslie contributed to this report.