Torpy at Large: DeKalb has annexation anxiety over Emory, CDC

Emory University filed a petition to join the City of Atlanta in June. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Emory University filed a petition to join the City of Atlanta in June. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta is a gentrifying city on the upswing and like the young hipsters flocking to all those overpriced urban apartments, Emory University wants in.

The university and its buddies, the CDC and Children’s Healthcare, want their Atlanta mailing addresses to become official and have filed to be annexed by the city, leaving behind their unincorporated DeKalb County status.

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The move feels like a blow to DeKalb’s prestige and comes at a time when the county’s schools and government have been working to recover from a self-induced meltdown from a few years past.

County officials say they are not taking the annexation personally. But a letter from DeKalb to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed seeking to delay the annexation paints the city like a Chinese boom town.

DeKalb's protest points out that Atlanta is loosier and goosier with height and density limits and that would affect the surrounding homes, which are part of a historic district.

“The dramatic impacts on density, traffic, aesthetics, noise, etc.,” the county says, will end up “overshadowing historic properties.”

Also, an Atlanta zoning classification allows “utility generators and boarding houses” while the more reasonable DeKalb code “prohibits these relatively intense and arguably distasteful uses.” And let’s not forget about the 225-foot tall buildings that might pop up, DeKalb notes. We all know Atlanta loves cranes.

Pollution. Increased traffic. Limited setbacks from streams. “Imposing the impacts of ‘college life’ on nearby residential neighborhoods.” Sheesh.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond says he is not against the effort.

“This is not secession; this is annexation,” he said.

In fact, he said, DeKalb might get a free streetcar out of all this. He was referring to the notion that by moving into Atlanta, the university would qualify to get on the MARTA's project wish list, which includes a light-rail line that runs from the Lindbergh Station to the campus' crowded Clifton Corridor.

No, Thurmond said, such an “inter-county annexation” of 744 acres would be “extremely complex,” what with fire coverage for CDC and Emory, 30 miles of water and sewer lines, zoning issues, future annexations, traffic congestion in surrounding areas, the possible MARTA line and even local schools. But Atlanta has been reluctant to work out these details with DeKalb, the CEO said.

“No one has had a nuts-and-bolts discussion, which is astounding,” he said. “The silence is deafening.”

The county wants a state arbitration panel, which is called for in state law, to hash out these concerns.

DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader, who represents the area, said the annexation could spur higher-density development on that Emory footprint.

But, Rader added, the residents surrounding that new Atlanta citizen (Emory) will feel the effects of increased building but will have no voice in controlling it. That, he said, is because the Atlanta City Council won’t have to listen to them. The residents are mere DeKalbites, after all.

Additionally, he said, properties adjacent to Emory could want in on this Atlanta thing, too. Remember, Atlanta is unabashed, full-bore new-urbanism development. Density is key; it forces people to take streetcars and ride bikes.

Rader worries that will bring further piecemeal annexations that will spawn development out of character for the area. And residents could not do a thing about it.

The city did not answer my questions, other than releasing a statement that read like it was put together by Emory’s and Hizzoner’s PR staffs and thrown into a blender.

It said, “Mayor Reed welcomes all communities who choose to join the City of Atlanta,” and this “presents the rare opportunity to bring a world-class teaching and research institution” etc. etc.

“We have a strong working relationship with DeKalb County … (and) look forward to working through this annexation process with the petitioners and the county.”

The real question is whether this will set off another round of annexation fever, like that of a couple years back.

In 2014 and 2015, a group called Together in Atlanta, started an effort to annex into Atlanta so students from around the Emory area could attend Atlanta schools. The effort centered on the historic, well-to-do Druid Hills neighborhood, whose residents were upset that the DeKalb school board turned down a proposal to create a cluster of charter schools.

August 2015: At the 50th Observance of the Struggle for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Dr. Joseph Lowery (seated, left) delivered closing remarks, and then everyone joined in song. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond (left) and next to him, Mayor Kasim Reed, took part. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

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Credit: Bob Andres

poll conducted by the Druid Hills Civic Association in late 2014 split almost evenly on whether residents wanted to stay in unincorporated DeKalb or dive into Atlanta. Feelings were strong. Real strong.

Natalie DiSantis, a member of the now-disbanded Together in Atlanta, wrote an essay saying “annexation presents an opportunity to join a city on the ascent.”

While the fervor has subsided, “there are still supporters on the residential front who want annexation,” DiSantis told me Friday. She said the city has better, more progressive policies and programs, like transportation and mixed-use housing than DeKalb.

“This is not a sentiment that has gone away,” she said.

David Moore, a lawyer who worked pro-bono for both the charter cluster effort and the Atlanta annexation movement, supports the Emory annexation, saying it might help get a MARTA expansion into the area.

“But I’m not hearing a groundswell” of people wanting to become tax-paying Atlantans. He said several new DeKalb County commissioners and a new school superintendent have helped quiet the constant controversies that raged in DeKalb.

“A lot of us just want to raise our families. We don’t see a reason to get agitated. It’s a feeling of ‘leave my school system alone. Leave my neighborhood alone.’”