As people filed into a town hall meeting at Clairmont Hills Baptist Church, they were offered a piece of paper listing the half dozen local governance bills filed during the last session of the state Legislature that proposed pulling their neighborhoods into cities with names like Lakeside, Lavista Hills and Briarcliff.
The bills, sponsored by different DeKalb legislators, aimed to reserve a spot for their constituents in what is sure to be a convoluted and painful conversation about municipal options for that part of the county.
“This process should not be driven by a single legislator or former legislator or group,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “What each area does has impacts on everybody else. We have to talk about this as a community and as a county.”
Hosted by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, the May 6 meeting was the first attempt to bring legislators, community organizations and members of the public together to discuss the various cities and annexations that have been proposed in the swath of unincorporated DeKalb County between Brookhaven and Decatur.
Since Sandy Springs incorporated in 2005, six cities have formed in Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. In the case of most of those cities, such as Brookhaven, the incorporation debates produced two camps: those for the city and those against it.
But this time, several groups are interested in creating cities in roughly the same area, creating conflicting maps and leading to more broad philosophical discussions about what municipal options, if any, are best for the area.
Rep. Michele Henson, D-Stone Mountain, is one of the sponsors of a bill to create a city of Tucker. She said the bill was in response to an effort to create a city called Lakeside that initially included a portion of the Tucker community.
“Sen. [Fran] Millar dropped the Lakeside bill and all of a sudden the maps started surfacing. And people in Tucker were very, very unhappy,” Henson said. “We dropped a bill so the people of Tucker, if they want to be part of that discussion, can be part of that discussion.”
Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, said though he introduced a bill to create a city called Lavista Hills, he’s not convinced new cities are the way to fix the discontent people feel with DeKalb County.
He pointed to the slim majority of votes that allowed for the creation of Brookhaven as evidence. About 55 percent of the voters casting ballots in the Brookhaven election were in favor of the city.
“The divisiveness of that vote, which was almost 50/50, is troubling,” Carter said. “I’m not sold on a new city. In fact, I’m very hesitant.”
But Millar, a vocal critic of DeKalb County who has been involved in the creation of many of metro Atlanta’s newest cities, said forming a new city doesn’t equate to leaving the county.
“Dunwoody has been very successful. I believe Brookhaven will be very successful. At the end of the day I believe 87 percent of my taxes still go to DeKalb County. Nobody is seceding here,” Millar said.
The leaders of several community groups also appeared at the May 6 gathering to express opinions about what creating a city could mean for their area.
Michelle Penkava of Tucker said residents are cautious. “One of the reasons we are taking this so slowly is we understand it will be divisive, regardless,” she said.
Bruce McGregor, past president of the Druid Hills Civic Association said land use is the main concern for his organization.
“We have an extremely flawed process of creating new cities. It’s extremely unfair,” McGregor said.
But he added it may make sense to explore the option.
“If everyone to the north of us becomes a city, that orphans us and we lose the ability to command our own destiny,” McGregor said.
Elmer Veith of the Dresden East Civic Association said his neighbors have been fighting new city efforts, like Lakeside and Brookhaven, which have tried to include their homes and commercial areas. They now are working to be annexed into the city of Chamblee, he said.
“We don’t want to be a new city. We want to join one that already exists,” Veith said.
Nearly all the speakers agreed that there should be inclusive community discussions to figure out the best option.
“The process is just as important as the outcome. You won’t have a vibrant, successful city if the process is not inclusive and fact-based,” Carter said.