OPINION: Land-gobbling Brookhaven to snag Toco Hill as latest prize

The new look of Toco Hill (or Hills, as most prefer) — Spiller Park Coffee, a high-end brew, with a new salad joint in the background. Photo by Julie Hodack

The new look of Toco Hill (or Hills, as most prefer) — Spiller Park Coffee, a high-end brew, with a new salad joint in the background. Photo by Julie Hodack

The ever-voracious and well-heeled city of Brookhaven is on the march, once again. This time the goal is to capture the Toco Hill shopping center in central DeKalb County.

The effort has been largely a stealthy — and steady — door-to-door effort over the past year to collect the signatures necessary to meet the threshold for annexation — more than 60% of voters and property owners in that area. Teams of notary publics, and according to residents, some lawyers, have for months trudged the streets of the Merry Hills and Biltmore Acres neighborhoods to draw up support.

The effort would bring in 4,200 residents, and $279 million in assessed property valuation, to Brookhaven from unincorporated DeKalb County.

The Toco Hill (or Hills, as most prefer to say) shopping center has not signed up to be annexed but it would be dragged in to the city because adjacent residents want in. That’s how the law reads.

Both Brookhaven and DeKalb officials say the owners of the mall, which has been substantially renovated and is really two separate properties, have chosen to stay quiet. Business owners can’t win getting mixed up in such matters.

County officials, understandably, are not happy. DeKalb Commissioner Ted Terry said the county could lose $2 million in annual property taxes used to fund police.

Former DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader, who has bumped heads with Brookhaven for years, said the annexation, which seems to be a done deal, would be “another significant erosion of the public safety tax base.”

“They’re whittling away at the tax base that supports services across the county,” said Rader. “The implications are pretty dire.”

Terry and some residents have complained that the effort is not as “organic” as backers claim. In fact, it has been funded by the city.

Also, who is behind the effort seems to be cloudy.

Earlier this month, the news website Decaturish wrote a story headlined, “Brookhaven annexation petition shrouded in mystery.

City of Brookhaven

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In that story, a reporter attended a public meeting concerning the annexation at The Torah Day School on LaVista Road. The reporter asked the people running the meeting who was behind the effort, but it was like putting her thumb on Jell-o. She kept getting hemming and some hawing.

A fellow named Howard Ginsburg is listed as the person “representing applicants” in the annexation. In a short note, he told me he applied for annexation “on behalf of my friends and neighbors in the Toco Hills neighborhood” and that 64% of voters are in support.

“Please note that all my work has been done on a volunteer basis without being paid,” he added.

Louis Myer lives in Woodland Hills, a neighborhood that would be squeezed between Atlanta and Brookhaven and left as an unincorporated island.

“It seems they have cut and pasted (the areas they want annexed), that they have gerrymandered it to get 60%,” said Myers. “The whole thing smacks of being underhanded. If it’s so great, then why hide? Why keep it secret?”

Also, a couple of apartment complexes have been carved out of the annexation map.

Veronica Sciacca lives just six houses south of the proposed annexed area. Last year, one of the numerous notary publics going door to door came to her home and sold her on the idea of becoming a Brookhavenite. She even convinced some neighbors to the idea.

Then she heard nothing. It turns out her property is now outside the proposed boundaries.

“It’s all been so mysterious,” she told me. “We literally did not hear about the recent annexation meeting until the day after. It’s not neighborly not to share what’s going on with a project this size.”

Commissioner Terry has also tried for months to get information about the effort. More than a year ago, he heard residents were to meet with a Brookhaven councilman about the matter. He said when he asked to come to the meeting, it was suddenly cancelled.

“I’ve asked several times to come to these meetings but this has been a one-sided campaign,” he said.

He and Commissioner Michelle Long Spears will hold a meeting Tuesday night at 6:30 at the Central Senior Center at Mason Mill Park. The next night, Brookhaven will hold a public meeting at its City Hall.

12/12/2019 — Brookhaven, Georgia — Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst rides a bicycle along the newly developed Peachtree Creek Greenway in Brookhaven, Thursday, December 12, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst once heard that I lived near Toco Hills and told me, “You’ll live in Brookhaven one day.”

Ernst insists there’s nothing sneaky about the effort.

“We’ve talked about this before; it’s been reported,” he said. “I’m surprised that they’re surprised.”

“I keep hearing stories that (the annexation) is just about getting the commercial property and that people are getting dragged in,” Ernst said. “But here, it’s 64 percent” who’ve signed up.

Ernst admits the city has greased the wheel to help things happen.

The city is providing services for the effort from Rosetta Stone Communications. John Garst, one of its proprietors, is the lobbyist for Brookhaven and also worked for the unsuccessful Buckhead cityhood effort.

Ernst says Brookhaven has stashed away about $250,000 for annexation efforts.

If they pull this off, it’ll be money well spent, considering the tax revenue haul coming from Toco Hills.

And so it goes: Brookhaven gets richer, DeKalb gets poorer.