John Ziegler walked up the steep hill of the Enclave at Briarcliff condominium complex’s parking lot overlooking roaring trucks and massive cranes a short distance away.
After living here for nearly eight years, the new noise isn’t too bad, he said with a smile. He looked across the DeKalb County line into Brookhaven where crews are building two new office buildings and a parking garage as part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s massive development at the North Druid Hills Road and I-85 interchange.
Ziegler and his neighbors successfully petitioned to be annexed into Brookhaven on Sept. 26 after a months of meetings, gathering facts and holding their own internal votes. But that comes only after backers of the proposed city of Vista Grove tried to bring the Enclave at Briarcliff into their struggle for what one observer calls DeKalb’s “no man’s land.”
The debate between annexation and cityhood rages throughout metro Atlanta as local governments fight over millions in taxes and fees. For Ziegler, the decision to seek annexation into Brookhaven is about eliminating uncertainty.
“We voted in September last year to be annexed into Brookhaven and then Vista Grove announced its plans in November,” Ziegler said. “We want to be part of a city that is already known.”
The Enclave at Briarcliff was included in the proposed city of LaVista Hills, which was rejected by voters by a slim margin in 2015. Ziegler said he and many Enclave at Briarcliff residents opposed LaVista Hills. Despite this, Vista Grove organizers included the Enclave at Briarcliff in their newest map.
The proposed Vista Grove has a population of about 61,000 residents and includes much of the LaVista Hills map including Lakeside High School, Briarlake, Sagamore and Oak Grove elementary schools, and Northlake Mall.
“We really have a historical opportunity to strengthen our civic ties and sense of identity,” said Andrew Flake, a Vista Grove organizer, at a Sept. 20 community meeting attended by more than 50 people.
After the creation of eight cities in metro Atlanta following Sandy Springs’ approval in 2005, the General Assembly in 2016 mandated proposed new cities pay for financial feasibility studies. Vista Grove cleared that hurdle earlier this year.
The two-year process for Vista Grove to become a city was kicked off officially in February when state Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) introduced a bill to create the city and state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) signed on to carry it in the Senate.
The Vista Grove bill must be introduced for a second time in 2019. But Taylor is not seeking reelection and Millar faces Democrat and former state representative Sally Harrell in November. Dunwoody residents Mike Wilensky, a Democrat, and Republican Ken Wright are vying for Taylor’s seat.
Millar attended the Sept. 20 meeting held at Embry Hills United Methodist Church. He said he supports Vista Grove because 61 percent of his constituents supported LaVista Hills.
“I said I would not sponsor a [new city bill], but I will carry it in the Senate,” he said. “As a legislator, I believe in giving people the right to vote.”
He also said if he is not reelected to the Senate, Vista Grove is likely to fail because the General Assembly and DeKalb County delegation are tiring of cityhood efforts.
“And this is a political reality — if I’m not there in the Senate to push [the Vista Grove bill] it won’t happen,” Millar added, implying Harrell would not support Vista Grove.
Harrell said in an email Millar is “misrepresenting” her position on Vista Grove and if elected in November she would listen to constituents and study the issue.
“However, cityhood is not a simple answer,” she said.
She noted Gov. Nathan Deal this year expressed his own unease with the cityhood process when signing the controversial bill to carve out land from the existing city of Stockbridge to create a new city of Eagles Landing.
Deal asked the legislature to next year develop a “comprehensive, detailed and uniform process” for creating new cities.
“Cityhood should not be rushed and there should be widespread consensus before moving forward,” Harrell said.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) and his GOP opponent Ellen Diehl also attended the Sept. 20 community meeting.
Flake said the Vista Grove initiative is a nonpartisan one and support is being sought from legislators on both sides of the aisle in the upcoming session.
He said he hopes the cityhood initiative makes it way through the General Assembly next and the Vista Grove referendum is placed on the November 2019 ballot. If so and if approved, the new city would hold city elections in March 2020.
But why not seek to have smaller areas annexed into another city, such as Brookhaven, rather than creating a new city?
Angela Barnett, an Oak Grove neighborhood resident and Vista Grove supporter, said cities are not seeking to annex neighborhoods like hers.
“My area is predominantly residential … and nobody is trying to get us,” she said. “There is no big commercial district here … like they have in Dunwoody and Brookhaven.”
Sandy Springs initiated the north metro Atlanta cityhood movement in 2005 when 94 percent of voters approved breaking off from Fulton County. In DeKalb, voters approved Dunwoody in 2008 and Brookhaven in 2013.
Advocates for cities often tout the “three Ps” for forming: improving street paving, police and parks. Flake explained the Vista Grove initiative is also about ensuring transit options such as trails, sidewalks, bike lanes and multiuse paths, as well as having a local say in zoning issues and community planning and economic development.
DeKalb County has 13 municipalities and 750,000 residents. The county provides major services to most cities, like water and sewer, but Flake said it is a “natural progression” for smaller areas to break off from the county. Fulton County is entirely municipalized, he noted.
But cityhood opponents note that when the affluent, mostly white communities of north DeKalb break off, the rest of the county suffers.
If approved, for example, Vista Grove would start raking in about $9 million a year in the new special local option sales tax approved last year that is now going to DeKalb County for public safety and transportation improvements.
Marjorie Hall Snook is part of the group DeKalb Strong that opposes new cities. If people want to live in a city, Snook said they could move to one of DeKalb’s existing municipalities.
Many Vista Grove supporters also supported LaVista Hills and Snook said this new attempt at cityhood is like the movie “Groundhog Day” where the protagonist lives the same day over and over.
“Enough already,” she said of the latest Vista Grove initiative. “There’s a group that doesn’t want to be deterred and can’t accept they lost.”
As a native DeKalb County resident, she said she purposefully chose to live in unincorporated DeKalb because she wants to be part of the “broad diversity” of the county.
“I don’t want to be pulled off into some enclave,” she said.
Residents frustrated because they feel they are not getting the services they feel they deserve for the tax dollars they pay are the impetus for all cityhood movements.
“That frustration builds up,” said Gabriel Sterling, a former Sandy Springs City Councilmember who has consulted with other cityhood movements, including Brookhaven, Johns Creek and LaVista Hills.
“That section of DeKalb [below I-85] is a no man’s land,” he said, because residents feel they don’t have someone on the DeKalb Board of
Commissioners living in their area looking out for them.
For Flake, though, the area is more than a “no man’s land”; it’s prime real estate for a new city.
“We’ve been a community for more than 50 years,” he said of the area. “Vista Grove is a new name … but having our own city means we have the opportunity to define ourselves.”