Stockbridge Mayor Anthony S. Ford addresses the public during a February press conference regarding the push to create a city of Eagle’s Landing. The proposal to form the new city won approval from the Legislature. Voters will make the ultimate decision in November. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Cityhood efforts in Georgia might face hurdles after Eagle’s Landing

When Gov. Nathan Deal approved creating a city of Eagle’s Landing, he also warned Georgia lawmakers that their rush to start local governments has gone too far.

Deal said state legislators should enact a “comprehensive, detailed and uniform process” before de-annexing land from existing cities to form new ones, as they did by taking part of Stockbridge and putting it within the proposed city limits of Eagle’s Landing.

Eagle’s Landing is the latest in a series of cityhood efforts that aim to increase local control of government but often lead to contentious divisions of tax money, political power and residents.

About 100 people turned out for a city of Stockbridge candlelight prayer vigil Monday. The Henry County city is fighting an effort by Eagle’s Landing, a wealthy Stockbridge community, to break away and form its own city.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s loose requirements for starting municipalities have resulted in 15 proposed cities passing the General Assembly since the state’s cityhood movement began with the creation of Sandy Springs in 2005.

All it takes to form a city is a study showing it’s economically viable, approval from legislators and a vote of residents. A referendum on incorporating Eagle’s Landing in Henry County will be held in November.

“This process gives me heartburn because you can have a few individuals with political connections to get this done,” said Camilla Moore, assistant city manager of Stockbridge. “Everyone is confused, and people across the city and the state are watching because it’s so bizarre.”

Eagle’s Landing would be the first new city in Georgia formed through a land grab of another municipality, leading to criticism that it would take tax revenue from Stockbridge, a majority African-American city that would be left behind with heavy bond debt.

Some legislators say it’s time to rein in incorporation efforts when they return to the Capitol next year. Others say erecting hurdles now wouldn’t be fair to communities that have already been seeking greater local control for years.

One proposal would be to pass legislation requiring space between existing and new cities — a requirement that was lifted in 2005 to allow a city of Sandy Springs.

“Let’s go back and have some clear boundaries,” said state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, the chairman of the State and Local Government Operations Committee. “We opened a Pandora’s box when we changed this to create cities.”

The state Senate passed a bill in February that would have set a 3-mile buffer between proposed and existing cities, but the state House of Representatives never gave that legislation, Senate Bill 453, a hearing.

A previous effort to put guardrails on the cityhood process also fell short. A bill introduced in 2016 would have required a study to show the economic impact of incorporation on school systems and county governments, along with mandating a two-year legislative process for proposed municipalities.

“What we need most is a much more robust process that proponents of new cities would have to jump through,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “I appreciate Governor Deal’s words, but I’m not impressed. If he didn’t think Eagle’s Landing was a good idea or procedures needed changing, he shouldn’t have signed the bill.”

The rules for new cities can change depending on the whims of lawmakers.

For example, the proposed city of Sharon Springs in Forsyth County needed approval from 57.5 percent of voters to incorporate instead of the normal 50 percent, according to a compromise passed by legislators this year.

But only 54 percent of voters supported Sharon Springs in a May 22 referendum.

A leader of the Sharon Springs effort, Brian Francis, said Georgia could benefit from better cityhood guidelines. If Georgia required a study of the economic impact on both the county and the proposed city, he said voters would have been better informed.

“You had conflicting studies and conflicting data,” said Francis, the chairman of the Sharon Springs Alliance. “It raised the rancor of the debate.”

Others seeking cityhood, like those aiming to create a city of Greenhaven in DeKalb County, oppose efforts to change the process.

Greenhaven deserves the same opportunity to incorporate as every city that came before it, said Kathryn Rice, who is leading the cityhood effort in south DeKalb. She said legislators shouldn’t change the rules now, after Greenhaven supporters have been seeking approval for four years.

“We have met all the requirements laid out by the General Assembly by which other cityhood efforts have been approved, but we remain denied,” Rice said during a March 28 press conference. “We refuse to give up on our dreams.”

The Greenhaven bill died after it lost the support of its sponsor, state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain. He said he backed away from the bill because fellow members of DeKalb’s delegation to the state House weren’t on board.

New legislation for a city of Greenhaven was introduced in the Senate before the end of this year’s legislative session.

State lawmakers generally support local control, and they’re hesitant to scuttle proposed cities that have met the Legislature’s requirements and gone through the process, House Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Rynders said.

“It’s impossible for any legislator to be an expert on every community,” said Rynders, R-Albany. “Those decisions need to be made at the local level. … I won’t move the goal post on communities if they’re in the middle of it.”

Rynders said he will review the state’s cityhood process before next year’s legislative session.

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