If the governor signs off on it, people that would live within the new city of Eagles Landing will get to vote on it in November.

Torpy at Large: Hey, Gov. Deal, don’t allow cities to cannibalize

Gov. Nathan Deal has not been afraid to use his veto when the Legislature, in all its wisdom, passes a bill that needs to be strangled and quickly buried.

Two years ago, he shot down a “religious liberty” bill to avoid a business-sapping controversy. He also stopped the campus carry gun law (although a year later he allowed a watered-down version to become law).

Both were big-time Republican issues but Deal, who’s retiring soon, likes to say he does what he thinks is right, not politically popular.

This year he’s being asked to kill a bill that could threaten cities across Georgia. A group of well-heeled residents around the south half of Stockbridge want to carve off the lucrative chunks of the city to create a new municipality called Eagles Landing, named for the local country club (the club uses an apostrophe).

New cities have popped up all over metro Atlanta in the past 14 years, as voters call for smaller government that is closer to the people. Often, such moves are about self-interest, about grabbing what you can when it comes to a good tax base and leaving those left behind to make do with what’s left.

This is that, although worse. This includes gutting an existing city and using it as the bones for a new city.

Stockbridge officials have hollered loudly. The move would remove 9,000 of their 28,000 residents and take half the city’s revenue, according to a report from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute.

This effort sets a dangerous precedent. Never before has a new city grabbed parts of an existing city as its base.

Last year, state Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, chair of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, said the “extremely unique” bill 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.”

Rynders eventually fell in line with fellow Republicans pushing the legislation.

But the problem, as Rynders pointed out, is that once Pandora’s jewelry box is opened, the richer parts of towns across Georgia could secede and create their own fiefdoms. City of Buckhead, anyone?

Not surprisingly, a racial element surrounds this effort, some Eagles Landing opponents argue.

Last fall, Stockbridge residents — 56 percent of them black, 23 percent white, 11 percent Asian — elected the city’s first black mayor, Anthony Ford. All five council members, who are elected at-large, are black.

Eagles Landing supporters say that has nothing to do with their movement and the new city would be diverse — 47 percent black, 39 percent white, 8 percent Asian.

Map of Stockbridge and proposed city of Eagles Landing
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Opponents said they had a gotcha moment when Susan Clowdus, an Eagles Landing leader, told legislators: “The demographic makeup of the current city of Stockbridge has kept some businesses from coming to the area. With the development of the proposed city, the demographics change.”

One can take that as black and white. But a reading of Eagles Landing literature makes it seem more green.

“High-end retail and other businesses look at the demographics before they come into an area to be sure the area can support their products. The median household income of Stockbridge is approximately $58,000,” the group says. “Since our area has a median household income of $128,570, they will come and it will help all of Henry County.”

Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Cheesecake Factory, Capitol Grill, Fab’rik, J.Crew and Pottery Barn were a few of the many businesses proponents mentioned that would prefer the $128K households over the $58K households.

Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford addresses a crowd on Monday, April 16, 2018, vowing that he will continue to fight legislation that would chop his city in half. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: BILL TORPY / AJC

Vikki Consiglio, an Eagles Landing leader, told me the “silent majority” of the area’s residents are now flooding her in-box with excitement over the proposed city.

She accused Stockbridge leaders of bending the law. She said the City Council held a public meeting this week to talk about the upcoming referendum but would not allow the media to come. Actually, Stockbridge officials told me about the meeting but said the church where it was held asked people not to shoot photos. (I did anyway.) A TV crew lingered outside.

Stockbridge officials, Consiglio said, are using “fear and intimidation” to thwart the Eagles Landing effort in a referendum this November. She accused them of wrongdoing by using taxpayer money to send postcards to residents living outside the city.

It may seem odd that a city government would send literature about an election to residents who live outside the city. But the legislation allows only Stockbridge residents living inside the Eagles Landing footprint to vote. The two-thirds of Stockbridge residents not in the proposed Eagles landing would have no say.

Worse, it allows residents not living in Stockbridge, but who would be part of Eagles Landing, to vote to de-annex that chunk of the existing city.

I called state Rep. Wendell Willard, a Republican who was a founder of Sandy Springs in 2004. He doesn’t like what’s going on.

Eagles Landing: It’s not just a country club or a way of life. It might one day be a city. (Note to grammarians: Eagle’s Landing, the country club, uses an apostrophe. The city won’t.) Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: BILL TORPY / AJC

“I thought it was a bad policy move to remove people from the city without the voice of those people,” he said. He noted that a majority of Stockbridge residents would have no say in what happens to their city. And a large number of non-Stockbridge people would be allowed to vote in the referendum, which would de-annex half of that city’s tax base and also form a new city.

“If it could happen here, it could happen somewhere else,” Willard said. “That’s why the bond underwriters fear things like this.”

Oh yeah, Bond Buyers magazine, the bible of the blue-chip investment crowd, last week carried a story headlined, “Georgia’s small city de-annexation bill raises red flags for the state’s municipalities.”

The story noted that, “Attorneys for bondholders who own $13.03 million of (Stockbridge’s bond) debt have warned the city that potential litigation and default lies ahead if the legislation is approved.”

Deal’s office says the Guv will study the bill before deciding what to do.

Deal likes to tout himself as the Friend of Business and loves bragging about Georgia’s AAA bond rating.

I’m sure he wouldn’t want investment bankers and their lawyers screaming bloody murder.

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