When the going gets tough, these Buckhead residents get secession fever

Organizers say the city isn't addressing Buckhead's problems, but opponents say a Buckhead secession could bankrupt Atlanta and send a cold message during a time of renewed focus on equity and race relations

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Buckhead secession

Illustration by Matt Love

In March, a group of Buckhead residents plotting together under the cloak of Zoom had seen enough: After spending a year studying whether the wealthy and predominantly (more than 70 percent) white northern swath of the city could split from Atlanta, they were moving forward, damn the torpedoes. Called the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, the organization hired a lobbyist, informed Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Atlanta City Council that it would start reaching out to neighbors, and promised to push for a referendum within the next 24 months. Decades of resentment had crystallized into an actual movement—one that opponents say could bankrupt Atlanta and send a cold message during a time of renewed focus on equity and race relations.

In 1952, then Mayor William Hartsfield added 100,000 people to Atlanta’s population by annexing bucolic Buckhead and parts of the west and south sides into the city limits—a desperate effort to keep the city’s demographics and political power majority white and the last great expansion of Atlanta’s borders. As Atlanta and Buckhead grew, property and sales taxes from the affluent neighborhoods and its fast-growing commercial districts and shopping centers bolstered the city’s financial footing. Whenever residents grew frustrated with crime, lagging schools, City Hall corruption, zoning disputes, you name it, Buckhead neighborhoods paid closer attention to pursuing cityhood, says Harvey Newman, professor emeritus of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.

Talk of secession didn’t extend much further than dinner parties and business lunches until 2008, when the citizen-activism group Fulton County Taxpayer Foundation hired attorney Glenn Delk to study the feasibility of incorporating Buckhead. The effort was justified, Delk argued: City Hall and Atlanta Public Schools repeatedly had failed the communities, which, according to his estimates, made up roughly 15 percent of the city’s population but contributed nearly 50 percent of its revenues. Breaking off into a city of approximately 70,000 people was not only financially possible, Delk said, but would give Buckhead residents control of their own destiny.

Then mayor Shirley Franklin and City Council, plus Buckhead’s influential civic and business groups, opposed the idea, Delk says. The Great Recession forced Buckhead—which was taking out Wall Street Journal ads to fill vacant office towers—to focus on staying afloat rather than starting anew. According to some estimates, Buckhead today makes up roughly a quarter of the city’s population and now contributes approximately 50 percent of its revenues. But the song remains the same: High-profile crimes like the killing of a seven-year-old girl hit by stray gunfire while riding in a vehicle near Phipps Plaza, carjackings, and robberies have left some residents on edge; potholes are punishing Porsches; and trash pick-ups are inconsistent. “We looked at what was currently being done for Buckhead versus the costs levied on our residents,” Sam Lenaeus, a real estate agent and member of the BEC’s executive board, said in an email. “We quickly concluded that even after paying a lot in taxes, we were still expected to solve our own problems and pour more private money into them . . . The time has come for the citizens of Buckhead to help by taking action ourselves.” (Other than its four officers, the volunteer organization does not name its members or say how large it is.)

Like Delk before them, BEC claims race plays no role in its cityhood efforts and the group acknowledges race’s roots in Atlanta’s annexation of Buckhead in the first place. “The city has turned a deaf ear to Buckhead’s issues,” Lenaeus says. Activists also say increases in property values in east side neighborhoods Morningside and Inman Park would help offset the loss in tax revenue if they pull out.

Buckhead

Photograph via iStock Photo

Regardless, Tim Crimmins, a Georgia State University professor and Atlanta historian, says a majority-white community pulling out of a majority-Black city—one of ATL’s calling cards—during a time when cities across the country are having a reckoning on racial relations would cripple the city and pour salt on a wound that’s never really healed. City council member Howard Shook, who represents part of Buckhead and supports residents studying the issue, says he hopes secessionists keep in mind that the new city would still rely on Fulton County’s judicial system, tax assessors, and elections officials. “Zoning and land use designations that are in place are vested property rights,” he says. “That’s a lot right there. Those are problems that will not go away.” Buckhead could create its own police force, he says, but that doesn’t mean crime would stop.

Cities are creatures of the state, and pro-Buckhead residents would have to take their case to the Gold Dome. In the final hours of the 2021 legislative session, two Republican state lawmakers—Rep. Todd Jones and Sen. Brandon Beach of North Fulton, neither of whom represent Buckhead—introduced bills to create the city. If state lawmakers approve the proposal, residents in the proposed city then would likely have to vote on the proposal. Lenaeus says the municipality’s working name is Buckhead City, so as not to step on the toes of the existing Town of Buckhead in Morgan County (est. population 183).

Delk thinks a majority of residents of the potential city would support the measure. But some of the “institutional forces” that Delk considered the biggest obstacles to pursuing cityhood—namely, Buckhead’s influential business community and civic groups like the Buckhead Coalition, Livable Buckhead, and the Buckhead Community Improvement District—still think the neighborhood’s problems with City Hall could be solved through the existing political process. “I think it would be a mistake both for Buckhead and the City of Atlanta,” says Sam Massell, the former Atlanta mayor who, as head of the Buckhead Coalition, long has opposed the concept. “It’s short-sighted. Today, crime is the number-one issue in our city [and metro region]. That can’t be solved by running from it. We need to face up to it.”

The answer, Crimmins says, is not to build a wall. “Elect a mayor who’s going to do something about it,” he says. “Crime affects a person living in Buckhead just like it affects someone who lives in Virginia-Highland or Cascade Heights. It’s all the same problem. It’s affecting the city. To say you’re going to take your money and go home and leave the rest of the city to its own designs—that just isn’t a good thing.”

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

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