Would-be cities duking out over boundaries in DeKalb

A word of advice for any DeKalb County folks wanting to buy a new map: Give it a year or so.

Four different proposals swirling around could in theory create at least that many new cities in north and central swaths of Georgia’s third-largest county. But since the boundaries of these would-be cities overlap — mostly in commercial areas highly sought for generating revenue — the battle so far has focused on what the final landscape will look like, not whether the cities make practical sense.

“Bringing in a new layer of government, just so you have someone closer to fuss at, I don’t know if people think it’s worth the fight,” said Honey Van de Kreke, a Tucker businesswoman.

But a fight is shaping up because what could become the cities of Lakeside, Lavista Hills and Tucker — not to mention the possibilities being called Briarcliff and Prosperity — are not following the script of metro Atlanta’s cityhood movement.

The cities that roared to life beginning with Sandy Springs’ incorporation in 2005 rode a wave of optimism fueled by thoughts of no new taxes and closer government representation. In north Fulton, their borders touched, creating natural allies.

The latest round of would-be cities are more competitors. Instead of talking about more local control, they are making public pronouncements that they need to form so that neighboring communties don’t first grab the available pockets of commercial land that would pay for police, parks and other city services.

And they are dueling for the possibility to exist at a time when they must also convince a more skeptical public that their births won’t harm the county’s ability to pay for services, too — and raise its taxes in the process. With plans for the would-be cities in flux, there are no hard numbers on their potential impact to DeKalb’s finances. But those areas, in combination with the newly formed cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody, would account for more than one-third of the county’s population.

First out of the gate this year was Lakeside, proposed to stretch from Pleasantdale Road north of I-285 south and west to I-85 and Clairmont Road. Proponents followed the conventional path, pointing out Lakeside would allow for more local control over government spending.

What it lacked in identity — there is no community or neighborhood known as Lakeside — it made up for with high-profile landmarks that included Lakeside High School, Mercer University, Northlake Mall and the downtown area of unincorporated Tucker.

But the bid to divide Tucker — a historic railroad stop of homes, businesses and industry — drew controversy on social media sites and at a rowdy community meeting that drew nearly 600 people.

The latest iteration of Lakeside’s boundaries, filed with a placeholder bill during the last days of the legislative session, returned most of Tucker to unincorporated DeKalb.

“Why bring people into a city who don’t want to be in,” said Kevin Levitas, a former Democratic state lawmaker on the board of the Lakeside City Alliance, which is reviewing cityhood. “We were trying to build a community of interest. Based on what people want is how you draw the map.”

But the compromise came too late. Days after the Lakeside placeholder, another bill was filed that would let Tucker become a city and pull in Northlake Mall and the surrounding offices and businesses.

That would eat away at the northern commercial land that would threaten Lakeside’s ability to pay for itself.

Another proposed city, alternately called Lavista Hills and Briarcliff, would wend from I-285 south to the existing city lines for Atlanta and Decatur.

Doing so would eliminate most of Lakeside while taking in massive employers such as Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More importantly, that city would encompass all of Druid Hills, where there’s a strong interest in gaining more local control over zoning and planning. A civic group there has been locked in a legal fight for a decade, trying to stop an attorney from carving a seven-lot subdivision out of three existing lots in the historic area.

Being a city would give an estimated 80,000 residents more power to deny such projects. But to work, that proposed city needs all the commercial land to the south and west to pay for zoning and planning services.

“Ours is a defensive move to make sure we have the commercial and industrial areas that support the offensive objective, to better control development here,” said Don Broussard, the city planner who is shepherding that proposal. “But I think people need to be convinced that creating a city will not do harm to our fellow citizens in DeKalb County.”

County officials, Democratic and Republican, have publicly stated support for cities to form while also saying the municipalities cost the county money.

Dunwoody, for instance, cost the county about $18 million in revenue when it became a city in 2008. In addition to lost property taxes, the county also missed out on business licenses and other fees.

Cityhood supporters have said, though, that the county could have made up its loss largely by cutting back on services it no longer needed to provide. DeKalb, for instance, did not eliminate any police positions even when Dunwoody formed its own force.

The county could not afford that kind of inaction with future cities: While Dunwoody and Brookhaven represent a loss of about 15 percent of the county’s population over four years, the new cities have the potential to lop off as much as an additional 20 percent overnight.

And that’s before considering what residents in central DeKalb could do. Although people there who might naturally seek annexation into Atlanta or Decatur, talk is swirling about a city of Prosperity. Though no bill carries the name, it could be added to one of the existing proposals — allowing it to be created by 2015.

Though the boundaries are fluid, Prosperity also could potentially spark a new battle for commercial areas in central and east DeKalb. Only the Stone Mountain industrial area and Stonecrest Mall businesses would be large enough to offset the mostly bedroom communities that dot the rest of DeKalb.

“As these cities attempt to form, it affects you even if you are not a part of the city,” said County Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who represents central and south DeKalb. “Everyone has to be engaged.”

Organizers behind the various proposals have pledged to meet with one another, as well as hold more public meetings, to figure out the next steps.

First up: raising $30,000 in donations each would have to pay for university studies that would forecast whether the cities can offer services with more local control at the same cost the county now charges.

“I like the possibilities, but it has to make financial sense,” said Randy Rudolph, a logistics consultant whose Midvale home could land him in Lakeside, Tucker or Lavista Hills. “This is just the beginning.”

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