Battle not over for prime land in DeKalb


BATTLES FOR BUSINESSES

As more new cities are proposed in DeKalb County, more battles are looming over key business properties that make both new and existing cities economically viable. Among the fights:

  • Century Center: About 11,000 residents in north-central DeKalb and the complex, with 1.7 million square feet of office space, will join Chamblee on Jan. 1 based on Tuesday's vote. Brookhaven already voted to annex the complex alone, leading to a legal battle that will be sorted out through a state Supreme Court ruling.
  • Northlake Mall/Tucker area: The shopping mall near Briarcliff Road and I-285 is included in the proposed boundaries of three would-be cities: Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker. The only proposed city expected to be feasible without raising residential taxes is the one that captures those stores and surrounding offices and industrial areas.
  • Lithonia Industrial Park: The industrial hub of eastern DeKalb, including areas around Rock Chapel and Panola roads, is included in the proposed boundaries of the new city of Stonecrest. However, the existing city of Lithonia has expressed an interest in pursuing annexation of the land to boost a tax base ravaged by a largely vacant downtown.

Come January, about 11,000 DeKalb County residents will become part of Chamblee — and the state Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether a prime office complex will, too.

The 100-acre Century Center office complex at Clairmont Road and I-85 has been the focus of a battle between Chamblee and Brookhaven since Brookhaven first tried to include the complex in its borders. Brookhaven was created last year, without including Century Center.

But the 17 buildings that house everything from state and federal government offices to a hotel symbolize more battles pending in DeKalb. With its ability to generate tax revenue, well-known commercial real estate is in play in at least five other maps for competing cities and would-be cities.

For its part, Century Center was included in the area that voters south of Chamblee approved for annexation Tuesday. But Brookhaven has filed an appeal of allowing the vote, since it voted to take the complex into its borders in October.

“Obviously, cities need commercial tax base to support services to residents. I get it,” said Todd Price, a software account manager who was among the 60 percent of voters in Clairmont Road neighborhoods between Buford Highway and the interstate who supported being annexed into Chamblee.

“But I see them as land grabs,” Price said. “There’s really a question of what happens next.”

The next step could involve more fights, or a renewed focus on negotiations, over similarly disputed land.

The Northlake area — targeted by the three would-be cities of Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker — is perhaps the most likely to next see action. The area, which includes a string of offices and shops surrounding Northlake Mall at I-285, would be critical to generating money for all three potential cities.

In fact, each of the cities’ feasibility studies, expected to be out by year’s end to determine the viability of the municipalities, will include projected revenues from the same disputed area.

Across the county, both the proposed city of Stonecrest and the existing small town of Lithonia are laying similar claim to the Lithonia Industrial Park.

“It’s probably inevitable because the methodology for new cities essentially creates an incentive for some groups to cherry-pick and go after properties that may not be best for the entire community,” said Allen Venet, president of the City of Briarcliff Initiative.

Representatives from Tucker’s effort have met with those from both of the other groups, but so far, all three have yet to sit down and talk borders.

Lack of cooperation could build new rivalries, such as the tension emerging between Chamblee, a 100-year-old former rail town, and Brookhaven, Georgia’s newest city.

Chamblee plans to hire 23 additional police officers and set up a southern precinct by year’s end to serve the new residents who will almost double its city of 16,000. City leaders have long argued they need the estimated $3 million in tax revenue from Century Center to pay those bills.

Those plans, and the annexation vote, were already in the works when complex owner Highwood Properties asked to become part of Brookhaven this summer. After battle in DeKalb Superior Court, which said the Chamblee annexation vote would take precedence, Brookhaven voted to annex the land in October but has not taken any action to serve the area.

The final answer will lie with the state Supreme Court. The other areas also could end up decided on the state level, if the Legislature decides on its own what borders will look like for proposed cities.

“I do believe the Legislature has very little interest or patience in sorting these things out,” said Kevin Levitas, a former state lawmaker who now serves on the Lakeside City Alliance Board. “It’s better if we can work through the disputes, but there is no doubt there are disputes.”