ANNEXATION VOTE

Turf war highlights tension in new cities

To the victor go the spoils: tax dollars from annexed businesses.

By April Hunt ahunt@ajc.com

Two things are certain about a tug-of-war over a prime piece of real estate in DeKalb County:

Despite a local court ruling Monday, the squabble over whether Chamblee or Brookhaven gets to annex the 100-acre Century Center office complex is not over. A judge ruled Chamblee has first dibs.

Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie’s ruling means residents in neighborhoods next to Century Center will vote Nov. 5 on whether to become part of Chamblee. If they do, the commercial area would be annexed too.

Also not finished is the fight between existing and would-be

cities over nonresidential land they rely on for tax dollars to pay for services to homeowners

— especially in new cities that have pledged not to raise taxes.

“Instead of fighting the county, the cities are fighting each other,” said William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University. “There is only so much developed land in DeKalb to go around.”

By contrast, there is no shortage of DeKalb communities that want to become cities. Seven proposals, some with overlapping boundaries, await the Legislature next year.

Already squabbles have popped up. Tucker began pursuing cityhood only after early maps showed Lakeside taking many of its retail and industrial areas. The two would-be cities are still fighting over which will get Northlake Mall and nearby offices.

Across the county, drafts of the proposed city of Stone-crest call for it to surround the existing small city of Lithonia. Stonecrest would also include the Lithonia Industrial Park, a cluster of trucking hubs and warehouses that Lithonia wants to annex.

Those fights loom in the state Legislature, which draws the maps for both new cities and annexations.

The number of the battles reinforces the importance of business-related taxes to local government. In addition to higher property taxes, businesses also provide licensing fees and sales taxes, said Katherine Willoughby, a public policy professor at Georgia State University.

Tension between Chamblee and Brookhaven appeared to be settled more than a year ago, before Brookhaven became Georgia’s newest city in December. The same state lawmakers who cut Century Center out of Brookhaven’s proposed borders approved Chamblee’s annexation referendum to include the complex at Clairmont Road and I-85.

But this summer, just months before Chamblee’s annexation vote, the complex’s owner, Highwood Properties, petitioned to be annexed into Brookhaven.

The move launched a court battle between the neighboring municipalities. In the latest round, Barrie ruled Monday that the annexation referendum gives Chamblee first dibs on Century Center. Only if the residents reject joining Chamblee can Brookhaven annex the complex as it voted to do earlier this month, according to Barrie’s ruling.

At stake is an estimated $3 million in revenue from the complex, money Chamblee leaders have long said is needed to cover the cost of adding 23 police officers and providing other services for the 11,000 new residents that almost double the town of 16,000.

“To come to the party, you have to bring a case of beer,” Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson said. “You can’t drink off our keg without paying.”

Brookhaven and Highwoods Properties both plan to appeal Barrie’s decision to the state Supreme Court.

Mayor J. Max Davis said Brookhaven is encouraging residents in those neighborhoods to petition to also become part of the city. The goal is to have the entire north-central DeKalb corridor municipalized, he said.

Some residents, though, worry that failure to join Chamblee will leave their neighborhoods as isolated islands, trapped between the two cities and the busy interstate. Annexation advocates don’t want a repeat of last year, when the annexation effort failed by just 40 votes.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May has applauded Chamblee for being the only city in the county whose annexations offer to take in large numbers of residents as well as prime land.

Since taking office in July, May has also asked the rest of the county’s cities to develop similar annexation zones that call for cities to provide more residents with basic services.

That effort will take time, so he plans to ask state lawmakers for a two-year moratorium on new cities to hash out a plan.

“Everyone claims the same areas as their own, and there is no conversation about what it means for the overall future of the county,” May said. “Until we can sit down and talk, there will be some very unhealthy fights.”