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Torpy at Large: Glad that voters clipped the Eagle wannabe-city’s wings

Sometimes, the voters really get one right.

On Tuesday, some in Henry County killed a nasty little piece of legislation that would have created the city of Eagle’s Landing and made no Georgia city safe.

A “yes” vote in favor of forming the new city would have pulled some 9,000 residents out of the existing city of Stockbridge, population 29,000, and perhaps taken half of its revenue.

Worse, the effort would have created a road map for disgruntled clusters of people to secede from their cities.

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This case was a perfect horror show of what could be replicated again and again. The residents of Eagle’s Landing, an area named for a country club and a gated community, wanted to carve off the lucrative tracts of Stockbridge (largely its south side) to create their own fiefdom.

New cities have been created all over metro Atlanta in the past 14 years as voters clamor for smaller government closer to the people. Often, those moves are based on self-interest — grabbing off the lucrative tax base that’s nearby and leaving those left behind to make do with what remains.

Often, a patina of race and class surrounded incorporation. In 2014, reporter Johnny Edwards and I looked at the seven cities incorporated since Sandy Springs came into being in 2004. At that time, 45 of the 46 elected officials were white. Since then, a couple of majority black cities have been created. All of those elected officials are black.

But Eagle’s Landing was different. Before, all new cities were carved from unincorporated areas. The Eagle’s Landing plan was outright theft, a taking of property, residents and tax base against the wishes of the leaders of an existing city and most of its residents.

Moreover, the legislation forged by Republican lawmakers friendly to the Eagle’s flight didn’t give the majority of Stockbridge voters — the ones left behind — any say in the matter.

In an earlier column I noted that last year, state Rep. Ed Rynders, a Republican from Albany and chair of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, called the bill “extremely unique” legislation that made him “nervous.”

“We don’t want to create a situation where a neighborhood can jump ship every time someone threatens to raise property taxes,” he said. “We’ll be seeing cities do this all the time.”

Eagle’s Landing: It’s not just a country club or even a way of life, it’s a wannabe city. But on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, Henry County voters said “No” to that. (Bill Torpy / AJC)

The Eagle’s Landing plan threatened to open a Pandora’s box where richer communities could draw lines around their cozy selves and forget the rest. How about the city of Buckhead?

It was fittingly symbolic that some of Eagle’s Landing was protected by gates.

Chris Anulewicz, a voting rights attorney hired by Stockbridge to fight this, said, “If this was approved, every city in Georgia could have its borders and its taxes taken away without a say. It could have very significant racial impacts.

Stockbridge’s voting age population is 53 percent black, 32 percent white.

Eagle’s Landing’s would have been 44 percent black, 43 percent white.

The Eagle’s Landing effort occurred after the entire Stockbridge City Council became African-American.

Yet the Eagle proponents argued that race had nothing to do with it. They said Stockbridge politics have been a hot mess for a decade, with lawsuits, angry accusations, mandatory anger management classes, weird land deals, and more than a handful of mayors. During this time, shenanigans were committed by white and black.

City of Stockbridge attorney Christopher Anulewicz in August 2018 at Stockbridge City Hall. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Eagle supporters argued that it’s about self-determination and quality of life. They’re tired of Waffle Houses and Dollar Stores. They need P.F. Chang’s and a Cheesecake Factory. Somehow, drawing new lines around an existing region of homes, roads and businesses would bring finer dining close to the country club.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones, a Democrat who represents much of the area and opposed the move, said some anti-Eagle canvassers could not pass through the community gates to extend their message.

“This was bigger than Stockbridge,” Jones said. “The highest members of the Republican Party pushed for it to happen. They had it as a template to do it elsewhere.”

The Stockbridge mayor and City Council pose following a press conference in February 2018. (REANN HUBER / REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Others, too, saw the danger. The Georgia Municipal Association opposed the measure. More than 100 Georgia cities, including Atlanta, passed resolutions criticizing the effort. And Stockbridge and Capital One went to court to stop the referendum.

The bankers were unhappy because a smaller, poorer Stockbridge would be on the hook for $17 million in bonds. The court refused to stop the referendum, but a federal judge said the new city would have to share a portion of Stockbridge’s debt. That decision no doubt scared off some Eagle voters.

State Sen. Brian Strickland, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said there were no grand ambitions to start a wave of secessions.

“This was limited to Eagle’s Landing. Some citizens came to me and asked for it,” he said, adding that he has heard no other communities asking to do the same thing.

“Any time a new city is incorporated, it comes from another government,” Strickland said. “There’s always controversy.”

Kathryn Gilbert, a former Stockbridge City Council member who was prominent in the Eagle’s Landing movement, said Stockbridge used ham-handed tactics, hiring lawyers and lobbyists to fight an organic citizen movement.

“We followed the law as set forth by the state,” Gilbert said. She pointed out that another referendum that was created to annex land into Stockbridge “crashed and burned worse than Eagle’s Landing.”

I’m hoping that the stake in the Eagle’s heart will put this effort to rest. But I’ve watched a lot of zombie shows and these efforts never seem to die.

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