Land rush continues for proposed new DeKalb cities

Politics and distrust in county government and schools are behind current incorporation push
Take your pick, mid-DeKalbites

City of Tucker Initiative

First came Dunwoody, which snatched up Perimeter Center, arguably the richest square mile of commercial property in metro Atlanta. Then came Brookhaven, which successfully padded its tax rolls with parcels lying far outside its historic neighborhood borders.

Now comes Briarcliff, Tucker, Lavista Hills and, what’s this…Lakeside?

Yes, even as the rest of us were planning vacations or researching summer camps, folks in mid-DeKalb have been busy meeting to discuss how to carve up their swath of the county into the newest batch of cities-to-order. That’s right, the local incorporation craze isn’t over, and, depending on what happens next, it could even pick up steam.

Right now, at least two overlapping cityhood options are in competition with one another, while a third lingers somewhere in the ether. Some proposals are more “official” than others, with non-profit corporations raising tens of thousands of dollars for feasibility studies, as well as their own websites and spokespeople.

In early February, the newly formed Lakeside City Alliance set things in motion by announcing its intent to raise $30,000 to commission a cityhood study from the UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The proposed city boundaries include a large scalene triangle (ask your fifth-grader) formed by I-85, North Druid Hills Road and Stone Mountain Freeway, as well as a large chunk of OTP territory stretching from I-85 south to Henderson Park.

Then, the City of Tucker Initiative was launched in April by folks in that unincorporated community. Its map would include nearly all of the land outside I-285, south of I-85 and north of Stone Mountain. In May came the City of Briarcliff Initiative, which is looking at the possibility of incorporating the area of mid-DeKalb between the city limits of Atlanta and Decatur, and interstates 85 and 285, and southwest of North Druid Hills Road. Along the way, somebody also floated the concept of a city of Lavista Hills, which would take in all the ITP real estate south of I-85 and north of Decatur.

“There’s a lot of discussion out there and, frankly, I have no idea where it’s going,” says state Sen. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur.

In her opinion, the creation last year of the city of Brookhaven — approved by a slim margin of 500 votes in a local referendum — served to destabilize the rest of the county. And yet, although Oliver doesn’t believe mid-DeKalb needs any new cities, she has pre-filed city-making legislation in case her constituents decide they, too, want to form their own local governments.

So why are people who are generally happy living in unincorporated DeKalb looking at creating new cities? Here’s one answer: If Dunwoody is Croatia and Brookhaven is Slovenia, you don’t want to end up as Kosovo.

It’s a similar phenomenon to what took place in Fulton County: After the northern end of the county incorporated into Sandy Springs, Milton and Johns Creek, residents in the south formed Chattahoochee Hill County and proposed the city of South Fulton — defeated by voters — in the interest of protecting their own interests in a county with a shrinking tax base.

Oliver believes that mid-DeKalb wouldn’t be gripped in its current incorporation fever if it weren’t for Lakesiders stirring the pot. She criticizes the effort as not reflecting a genuine grassroots movement.

“It’s a political campaign driven by people who want to create another Republican-controlled city,” Oliver says, noting that its principals include Steve Schultz, a GOP political consultant; Susan Lacetti Meyers, a GOP campaign operative; Kevin Levitas, a former state House member who ran as a Democrat but often voted with conservatives; and Mary Kay Woodworth, a registered lobbyist who serves as the LCA’s chairwoman.

Woodworth, however, says she simply represents a group of citizens concerned about corruption in the county government and school system. “We’re doing this because we’re interested members of this community,” she says.

Still, the partisan side of city-making was revealed this spring, when state Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, announced his support for a city of Lakeside, but said Democratic-backed plans stood little chance of passing.

Bruce McGregor, immediate past president of the Druid Hills Civic Association, has been following cityhood talk closely in recent months.

“We’ve got a situation where anybody can order a study to create a city of any size, at any time, for any reason, as long as they cherry-pick enough commercial property to pay the bills,” he says. “Right now, the whole thing is a land rush. It’s a very bad system.”

And yet, Druid Hills residents began weighing their options even before Lakeside arrived on the scene.

“The basic services in DeKalb are fine, but people in Druid Hills are losing confidence in their county government and their school system. The tipping point, however, was Clifton Ridge,” says McGregor, referring to the proposed subdivision that Robert Buckler, a well-connected Atlanta attorney, has been fighting to build. Last year, the County Commission and CEO Burrell Ellis angered residents by siding with Buckler’s efforts to circumvent historic preservation guidelines.

McGregor says the neighborhood is considering annexation into Atlanta or Decatur, or perhaps joining the proposed city of Briarcliff, which, with an estimated population of 90,000, would be about the size of Macon. By contrast, Lakeside would have about 65,000 residents, but McGregor, a former city planner, says Briarcliff would have a much more diverse mix of income levels and ethnicities.

Of course, CEO Ellis’ indictment last week on 14 felony counts of extortion, theft by taking, and conspiracy, will likely only increase interest in creating new municipalities. Uncertainty around the county school system is also fuelling the fire; some mid-DeKalb parents would like to join with Dunwoody and Brookhaven to create an altogether new school system for the county’s northern cities.

Oh, and did we forget to mention that some folks in the southeast corner of DeKalb want to create the city of Stonecrest?