Bill rouses Peachtree Corners border dispute

Residents of the Peachtree Corners community in Gwinnett County voted in November to incorporate the community. Today, they will elect the first City Council.

But just last week state Rep. Tom Rice, a Norcross Republican, introduced a measure in the state House, HB596, that would permit neighboring Berkeley Lake to annex 161 properties that would have fallen inside Peachtree Corners’ city limits. The bill already has passed the House and currently awaits a vote in the Senate and then approval by the Governor’s office.

If it’s approved, the annexation could cost the new city $40,000 in projected tax revenue and has agitated rifts in a city that held the closest incorporation vote in metro Atlanta in the past six years.

Rice said the bill sets borders for the two cities without the expense of litigation and provides certainty for area property owners instead of waiting until Peachtree Corners officially starts operations July 1. “Nobody that I found in Peachtree Corners wanted to become a plaintiff in a court case,” Rice said Monday.

“I think there’s a lot of questions about why this was done now,” said Jim Nelems, a member of the Peachtree Corners Ballot Committee, a local watchdog group founded by residents against the incorporation. “This is not open, this is not aboveboard, this is not transparent.”

Rice and other local officials characterized the bill as the best resolution among the neighboring cities of Berkley Lake, Duluth and Norcross, who have engaged in a border feud since Peachtree Corners residents were allowed to vote on incorporation in November. All have moved to annex properties to expand their borders and add more commercial tax revenue streams.

That’s particularly important in Berkeley Lake, one of Gwinnett’s smallest cities at little more than one square mile and 2,100 residents.

Peachtree Corners is poised to become the biggest of Gwinnett County’s 16 municipalities with an estimated 38,000 residents in an area between Norcross and Berkeley Lake.

Berkeley Lake Mayor Lois Salter said the bill would allow Peachtree Corners to keep areas including Pinckneyville Park and the West Gwinnett Park and Aquatic Center while allowing Berkeley Lake to secure industrial properties farther north and along Buford Highway.

“While no one was really very happy with this solution and after much consideration and real struggle, it seemed at least acceptable to all,” Salter said in a written statement.

Mike Mason, a leader of the movement to incorporate Peachtree Corners and the new city’s sole mayoral candidate, said he’s opposed all of Berkeley Lake’s efforts to annex city properties, but understands why legislators are trying to resolve the dispute.

“Because we were not yet a city, and had no legal authority, I raised our objections to our elected officials,” Mason said in a statement Monday. “I believe their legislation is a well-intended effort to stop the annexations and generally avoid a messy lawsuit between the two cities.”

The resolution doesn’t sit well with former opponents of cityhood, who were already skeptical of adding another layer of government. Some have suggested they will urge Peachtree Corners’ new city council members — once they’re elected and seated — to contest HB596.

“Doing it the week before (the election) and have it be a surprise made it look subversive,” said Bob Martell, president of the Peachtree Corners Ballot Committee. “Once our candidates are chosen, I would guess they’ll get together ... and least have it stalled to see if there’s a different solution.”

Staff writer Chris Quinn contributed to this report.

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