Giving Voice to Vista Grove: The Process of City Creation Continues

With your help and continued engagement, and that of so many members of this community, the process of creating a new City of Vista Grove continues to move forward! 

Here’s where we are: The 2020 legislative session, which just concluded after some COVID-related delay, was an important one. Recognizing the important role of city government in our area, two of our seasoned local legislators--Senators Sally Harrell and Elena Parent, with support and assistance from Representative Mary Margaret Oliver--sponsored and introduced legislation to incorporate Vista Grove. This is the first time that these well-respected and thoughtful legislators have introduced a cityhood bill for our area, and they are committed to making sure that conversation about cityhood is thoughtful, positive, and well-informed. 

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Vista Grove Moving Forward / Senate Bill 507

 

As we e-mailed at the end of April, these are curious times we live in and the world as we knew it has changed. These days, it is no longer safe to be in close connection with one another: families are re-organizing their lives to accommodate their children no longer in school, community meetings are being conducted through video conference, workers find themselves home and anxious, or working and anxious, and restaurants and other businesses are trying to make this new reality work while being responsible citizens and employers. Neighbors on daily walks wave and say hello to one another from a safe distance of six feet or more, and it is with caution that we venture to places like the grocery store and gas station. 

 Things have happened so quickly that there has been little time to mourn what was, and will come. We do not know.  And yet, in these changing times, there are extraordinary acts of courage and bravery; as seen among the health professionals who work extraordinary hours to support those who can no longer support themselves. There is hope to be found in the valiant efforts to get supplies and equipment to hospitals, and in the way neighbors extend their support to one another - spreading hope and care in the messages they share.

 These acts of caring and support for our loved ones and neighbors, for all of those like health professionals on the front line, have to be priorities right now for us, and for our elected representatives. Important issues related to the creation of a new city will need to wait for a time. Due to the scope and magnitude of the current crisis, our legislators have other matters that do, and rightly should, take priority over the creation of our city. 

Be assured that the process is moving forward and those of you who are enthusiastic about the city of Vista Grove can get excited about our future prospects. The Senate Bill for Vista Grove was introduced this past session - Senate Bill 507. Senators Elena Parent and Sally Harrell have sponsored the bill, with support in the House from Representative Mary Margaret Oliver.  Although the bill will need to be taken up again next legislative session, we all can and should continue to advocate for our city, where appropriate.

 This is, for all of us, uncharted territory. In closing the legislative session early to protect the representatives and state citizens from coronavirus, time frames and normal legislative business were upended. 

 For now, we want you to know that we have thoughtful sponsorship of the bill from seasoned local legislators, and they have committed to advance conversation on building a city.

In the meanwhile, we will need your help in whatever capacity you have to offer. At some point, you may receive a call from the Vista Grove Initiative, and when that call comes, we hope you will say yes to helping us help our legislators know that, for us, the desire for a city of Vista Grove is alive and active.

 Continue to make your family and community safety a priority, as best you can. Reach out a hand of help, where you can. Keep businesses working with your patronage, when you can. Thank those on the front lines of care and sustainability at every opportunity. Let us know if we can help. 

 Life in Vista Grove continues and we feel fortunate to be a part of this community. 

Your Vista Grove Volunteer Team

 http://www.vistagrove.org/

 

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What's with annexations?

You may have read or heard about instances when a neighborhood or a commercial area in unincorporated DeKalb wants to be “annexed” by a neighboring city. Northlake Mall has annexed into the City of Tucker. The Lavista Park neighborhood (right outside the Vista Grove map) has been approved to annex into the City of Brookhaven. And just today, the Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that Related Group, the owners of the property between Target and Chik-Fil-A on North Druid Hills Road and Briarcliff have also applied to be annexed into Brookhaven. “Hundreds of apartments, new hotel, planned for Brookhaven, next to CHOA, Emory campus,” https://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/news/2019/12/17/hundreds-of-apartments-new-hotel-planned-for.html

But what does that mean? Annexation, simply put, is when an area on the border of an existing city becomes a part of that city.

It does not mean the annexed area leaves DeKalb County; instead, it remains part of the county and still receives many services from DeKalb. Annexation does, however, mean that the area is subject to the new city's jurisdiction and that it receives from that city those services that the city is providing. Correspondingly, property owners in the annexed area pay to that city, instead of to DeKalb, that portion of local taxes representing what that city charges for those services.

There is a misconception that recent annexations happened because neighboring cities are “grabbing" property, or that they are somehow aggressively seeking to absorb property. In reality, annexations are occurring, via different methods, because the businesses or the neighborhoods, who are near those cities, prefer to be inside the jurisdiction of the city. Like the owner of the Target property on Briarcliff Road, they are themselves applying, or in some cases voting, to be annexed.

As far as how annexation happens, one common method of annexation is known as the 100% method. Generally speaking, when 100% of the owners of an area of property that is contiguous (next to a city) wants to be annexed, they can apply. The city council then considers, and can approve the annexation. This is the method that business property owners use, because they typically are moving a parcel or several parcels together, all of which they own, into a city. Northlake Mall annexed into Tucker using the 100% method, and the Briarcliff/North Druid Hills commercial property owners are also using this method.

The next very common method of annexation, which is more often used by neighborhoods who wish to annex, is the 60% method. In this case, both 60% of the registered voters in the area and 60% of the property owners, submit a petition and application to the city for annexation. Then, looking to the best interests of city residents and residents in the area to be annexed, the city council considers and can approve the application. This is the method that LaVista Park has used in applying to be annexed into Brookhaven. https://www.reporternewspapers.net/2019/11/30/lavista-park-community-seeks-annexation-into-brookhaven/

Yet another method of annexation is by a resolution and referendum process: using this method, cities propose an annexation and then residents in the area can vote in a referendum on whether to be annexed.  There is also annexation that the General Assembly can propose by local act, which in the case of a larger county like DeKalb, would require a referendum in the areas to be annexed. All of these methods, which are provided by state statute, involve and require property owner or voter input.  Lastly, there is the special case of an annexation by a city to remove an unincorporated island. 

And apart from this special case of an unincorporated island, cities are not able to unilaterally annex either commercial or residential areas. When Northlake Mall annexed, its ownership wished, as do many businesses that annex, to take advantage of a more streamlined and quicker permitting process. The LaVista Park neighborhood, which has been approved to be annexed into Brookhaven, is right next to Brookhaven and wished to have more input in the decision making process of so much nearby development. 

Certainly, cities themselves will, through their economic development departments, advertise their benefits. And there are instances in which cities would like to expand, and even, in some cases, more aggressively make their plans public. For example, the city of Doraville recently made clear that they would like to add to its tax base by annexing large portions of neighborhoods and business areas in the Embry Hills area.   http://doravillecityga.iqm2.com/Citizens/FileOpen.aspx?Type=1&ID=1401&Inline=False&Frame=SplitView&Height=1520

http://doravillecityga.iqm2.com/Citizens/SplitView.aspx?Mode=Video&MeetingID=1424&AgendaID=1401&FileFormat=pdf&Format=Agenda&MediaFileFormat=mpeg4

One can fairly conclude that cities like Brookhaven and Chamblee, who would like to grow, have also considered scenarios in which they expand their own borders into new areas, including the Vista Grove footprint. 

Any massive proposed annexation, of course, as discussed above, could not occur without a majority vote of residents. It is understandable that many residents and businesses on the borders of Vista Grove, if they had other alternative, might be receptive to such plans. As long as cities are continuing to improve their infrastructure at a rapid rate, and offer an attractive value proposition for their services, there will be ongoing annexation. For example, residents in the new city of Tucker now pay a lower overall millage rate than residents in unincorporated DeKalb. https://decaturish.com/2019/06/tuckers-takeover-of-parks-will-result-in-lower-tax-bill-for-residents/

Indeed, the Georgia Municipal Association lists a host of reasons that property owners and citizens decide to annex, including “higher levels of government services,” “infrastructure improvements like sidewalks and parks,” “a strong sense of community and professional planning,” and “a smaller and more responsive local government.”  See Growing Cities, Growing Georgia (2014), https://www.gacities.com/GMASite/media/PDF/publications/annexation.pdf.

With those incentives in mind, and looking to recent history, we can conclude that portions of our community that are unincorporated now will continue to be absorbed into neighboring cities by annexation. It does no good to pretend that annexation is not happening; instead, we have to recognize and address the situation realistically.

How, then, might we restore stability, avoiding continued piecemeal annexation, including the steady attrition of neighborhoods and businesses on the borders into other cities? For those of us in Vista Grove, one solution is to make staying here a far more attractive value proposition than leaving to annex. A new city of Vista Grove can provide the representative voice, infrastructure improvements, and targeted services (roads and sidewalks, parks, and zoning) to do that. And now is the time, when we still have a strong tax base and vibrant commercial areas as a foundation for a new city, to get started on that work. 

Interestingly, Brookhaven is considering a plan that might well discourage neighborhoods from annexing into its borders: It is looking into creating special tax districts for newly annexed areas, so that residents annexing in do not receive the benefit of the city’s lower millage rate, at least initially. https://www.reporternewspapers.net/2019/11/02/special-tax-districts-to-be-created-for-brookhaven-annexations

From a Vista Grove perspective, it also seems that annexation by bordering cities would disturb the cohesive community we now enjoy. Should Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Tucker and Clarkston expand their borders, over time, it would forever change the identity of our community and impact the strong, united voice we have now and are working hard to solidify. As a desirable tax base, it is not realistic to believe our area will remain unincorporated in the future. The decision, then, is whether we take action now to unite into one city, or whether we are content to be carried along by the forces that drive annexation, losing in the process some of our community voice and cohesiveness.

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How do we prevent overdevelopment of our city?

Carefully planned development and construction within a city are critical for the prosperity of residents. Development can create a sense of community, provide infrastructure investment, attract business and generate jobs, bring desired curb appeal, and maintain or increase home values. Whether the development is residential or commercial, construction brings economic stability. 

Development can also increase traffic, alter ecosystems and habitats, and change the character of a community. The key is to find a balance between growth and maintaining the desired character of the community, as well as weighing the pros and cons of the development plan.  

This balance must be intentional and thoughtfully planned by community leaders as part of a process that draws upon residents' intimate knowledge of their own community. Absent this planning, organic development that occurs may be undesired and harmful. Representatives who live in the areas they serve will understand the goals of the local community and its residents, and through citizen input and participation in the zoning process are able to implement a long term plan to manage development activity in order to strike that important balance.  

The key to managing development, and therefore overdevelopment, is to have local leadership that is immersed in the community and understands the balance between growth and maintaining character. That local leadership then ensures that community voices are heard and are a direct and immediate part of the planning and development process.  

This is exactly why cities have proven more successful at community building and improving quality of life.  City of Vista Grove residents and elected leaders will all live in the community and are best equipped to balance development with maintaining the character of the community.  

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Brookhaven proposes to keep taxes higher for newly annexed areas

Over the past few years in our pursuit to create a city within our footprint, I have had neighbors who believe it would be better to be annexed into a city like Brookhaven. One of the reasons for considering annexation was that the millage rate is lower in a city like Brookhaven. However, in the article below it appears that any new annexations into Brookhaven will be at a higher tax millage rate similar to DeKalb County. 
We believe a city of Vista Grove will keep our neighborhoods together and we can run key services more efficiently and locally at a lower tax rate than DeKalb County. 
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Community Informational Meeting 10/23

The Vista Grove meeting was an overwhelming success on Wednesday evening October 23rd at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral on Clairmont Road. Over 60 neighbors attended this very informative meeting. The evening began with a wonderful presentation given by Greg Ramsey, the developer of Pendergrast Farms, which will be located on Briarcliff Road near the intersection of Chrysler Drive. The Pendergrast Farms is a type of development that the city of Vista Grove would support. It is a well thought out development that maintains a large buffer around its property,  communal living & limited removal of trees on one of the largest remaining undeveloped properties in our footprint. 

The second half of the evening was dedicated to  answering questions from the audience about the city initiative of Vista Grove. Detailed answers were given about the feasibility of having a city, taxes, the many benefits of cityhood and how we can make this become a reality. Many in the audience left this evening being excited about how a city if Vista Grove can improve our area.
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Vernon Jones introduces our bill, HB 671

As this legislative session comes to a close, we are excited about where Vista Grove is headed. One of our DeKalb legislators, Rep. Vernon Jones, has just signed on to sponsor our bill (HB 671). We appreciate Rep. Jones’ leadership on this issue, as it permits the legislative process for Vista Grove to move forward. While we hoped legislation could be passed this session, with a vote in 2019, this bill will be considered next session, moving a cityhood referendum to 2020.

Between now and next January, we all need to work to get the word out about Vista Grove to even more neighbors, and to continue to foster positive and factual discussion about improving this great community. When the new session comes around, we will be ready. Our DeKalb legislators say they want to hear from more constituents about their enthusiasm and readiness to vote on a City of Vista Grove. Please continue to contact your representatives and keep the discussions alive in your neighborhoods.

As importantly, there is work to be done on improvement projects right now, right here in Vista Grove. Where do you most want to see us join together as a Vista Grove community? Building out our own Vista Grove Greenway? Creating new recreation spaces and opportunities for our families and children? Pushing for road repairs and sidewalk additions? Look for an important update soon about how you can stay involved.

Thank you for all you do! Your efforts to date have galvanized this movement and helped educate our legislators about the strong desire for change in our community — and with your help, we WILL carry that work forward!

Please keep up your Vista Grove signs! Our signs help raise awareness of this movement for positive change and to give us voice. They also show our legislators how widespread support is in the community.

What can you do to help make a City of Vista Grove a reality?

• Contact your legislators and let them know you support a vote on Vista Grove (and ask your friends and neighbors to do the same)
• Donate to help fund our outreach efforts
• Display our yard sign – let us know if you need one
• Wear a Vista Grove shirt to events legislators attend (email us at info@vistagrove.org if you'd like a shirt or pick one up at a Vista Grove event)

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A Voice and a Vote

The movement for a voice for the Vista Grove community and the legislative process to allow us a vote on cityhood is continuing! The fact that “Crossover Day” has passed without our cityhood bill clearing the General Assembly this year just means that we need to focus on ensuring our right to vote in 2020.

For this year, we are pleased that our bill has been introduced and is now available for review and discussion to continue this initiative forward into the 2020 legislative session. Any state legislator can sponsor a bill; and since enabling a vote for Vista Grove is both of countywide and regional interest and benefit, Representative Timothy Barr introduced our cityhood bill in order to continue moving the conversation forward. This displayed admirable vision and political courage and if you have not thanked him, please write to do so.

Our community deserves for one of our own local representatives to stand up for us and sponsor our bill allowing us to vote. As Representative Barr has communicated, his intention is and has always been to preserve a right to vote while we seek bipartisan sponsors. It is thus more important than ever to write your legislators and let them know that you support Vista Grove – they need to hear from you!

What is our challenge for local representation?

The Vista Grove area has a total of seven legislative representatives, none of whom have a majority of constituents within the Vista Grove map. As many of you have read, each legislator is subject to extraordinary pressures from interests within the bulk of their districts, which are outside of Vista Grove. Further, their districts each include between one and four neighboring cities with long term goals that conflict with our community’s cityhood initiative. This divided interest and fragmented representation for our community raises the bar even higher for us when it comes to being heard! Whether fair or not, it is our reality.

So please take a moment and write now. Our representatives are listening and the only way to make our community’s voice heard is for you to write them.

As we move forward with the cityhood initiative, you have our continued commitment to lead a positive dialogue. We have not, and will not, engage in the politics of negativism. The Vista Grove movement has delivered good facts, in a positive way, about options for our civic future including cityhood. The movement stands for improving our community for our community and for fostering neighborhood cohesion. We firmly believe it is not only right, but more successful to build our community by respecting all opinions and treating everyone with dignity and respect, both online and in person.

Please know that this effort continues to be driven by you and your neighbors, who have made it possible to fund the required feasibility study and a lobbying team through a good old-fashioned grassroots effort. The positive feedback and support from the community has been overwhelming, we have met the statutory requirements, and we are determined to get the right to vote, whether it be this year or in 2020.  

Regardless of the outcome during the current session, we are committed to doing the hard work so that our legislators will support us as we move forward with Vista Grove!

Sincerely,
Andrew, Meg, Lara, Angela, John, and Megan

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Legislative Update

Thanks to all who came out to our January information meeting on Jan. 30 - we had a great turnout (100+ people), and a very energizing discussion!

At the meeting, we announced our new legislative team for this crucial legislative session. Brad Carver, who is experienced in working with cities to help introduce their charter legislation, will assist us again this year. We’re grateful to have his expertise on board.

In addition, we’re excited to announce that Stonecrest Mayor Jason Lary is joining the Vista Grove team. As someone who knows from experience the benefits a city can bring to the overall strength of both local communities and DeKalb as a whole, Jason Lary is an excellent addition to our legislative efforts, and we’re grateful for his support. He was elected Stonecrest’s first mayor in 2017 and worked diligently for years to establish a city to represent his DeKalb community.

Having both Brad and Mayor Lary assisting underscores Vista Grove’s non-partisan message. Vista Grove is a non-partisan effort, just as the issues a city of Vista Grove would address, like improving infrastructure, building community, and fostering smart economic development, are non-partisan issues. Both Jason Lary and Brad Carver are experienced in identifying common grounds and working on practical solutions with both Republican and Democratic legislators. We hope to get as much bipartisan legislative support for a Vista Grove bill as possible, and we believe working with both sides of the aisle is the best way to accomplish that goal.

As always, your support, as an engaged and informed member of the community is so important, and our legislators have shared that they want to continue to hear from you that you support the opportunity to vote on the creation of our own city.

 

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Public Works - A Smoother Road for Vista Grove

Public Works: A smoother road for Vista Grove

If you joined us for our December informational meeting, you took part in a great discussion about public works, specifically roads, drainage systems and sidewalks — in a potential city of Vista Grove. Right now, we have an historic opportunity to invest in, repair, and build out this important infrastructure in our community.

Cities operate in designated service areas. For Vista Grove, those would include parks and recreation, roads and drainage, police protection, and planning and zoning. Other services would continue to be handled by the county.

Paving/Roads

Roads and drainage services would also include pavement maintenance and repaving, and sidewalk repair and construction. Stormwater systems maintenance, an important aspect of that, is paid via a separate dedicated fee.

As a city, Vista Grove would be able to focus solely on keeping the roads in our area paved, including preventative maintenance. Right now, there are a large number of deferred maintenance projects across DeKalb. 2014 Transportation Plan “In recent years, over 300 miles of streets have been identified as needing resurfacing each year, but funding programs available through GDOT and the county, along with bond programs have been insufficient, funding only 10-20% of the miles in need of repair.”

Pavement preservation — as opposed to simply addressing repairs when they are needed — is cost-effective, saving later dollars on rehabilitation. 2014 DTS. Maintenance deferred for too long builds risk of hazardous conditions and more expensive rehabilitation.

If you have observed the paving projects, as well as sidewalk construction, in neighboring cities, you have seen rapid progress in working through paving backlog and in new sidewalk construction.

How have these cities been able to move so quickly? Through the judicious use of public-private partnership — having privatized and professional contractors bid to handle these services. Services are thereby delivered professionally from conception, by subject matter experts. This approach, used most recently by Tucker, permits immediate readiness, rapid deployment of staff and resources, and reduces expenditure of capital in the start-up phase.

In turn, this is helping cities and the county as a whole. We know cities do not exist in isolation. Cities coexist and partner with the county. They work with other cities, and they work with regional and state stakeholders on subject matter areas like transit. The sharing of service delivery between counties and cities — the city-county partnership — is creating success countywide. When cities to handle these aspects of public works, it frees up time, money, and resources for the county.

Brookhaven, which provides road maintenance for its citizens, has a proactive road paving program. It engages contractors to assess all city streets every four years, prioritizing a pavement condition index that looks at conditions and traffic volume. Based on this assessment, the city has in place a five-year street paving capital program.

Tucker, too, has been able to address roads using their dedicated SPLOST funds. They started with a detailed study, and hired a contractor to drive and survey every road in the city. Once this data was collected, the city council approved a contract to have a paving and concrete contractor do repair work for fiscal year 2019, along with a separate engineering and inspections contract. City Council Wrap Up, June 11, 2018

Sidewalks

Sidewalks are another critical piece of a long-term infrastructure plan for Vista Grove. We should work toward having sidewalks on both sides of all major roads and within all school walking zones, i.e., those areas within one mile of schools.

Certainly, this is a safety issue. A 2014 transportation study of the county noted that 60 percent of crashes occur within ½ mile of a school. For crashes involving pedestrians, 75 percent of them occurred along roadways with no median and 81 percent of them were on roadways with speed limits between 35 and 45 mph. (2014 DTS, Needs Assessment Page 9.) Those conditions can and should be addressed.

Beyond safety, a sidewalk network plays an important role in building community. When we can safety and easily walk to playgrounds, retail areas, and parks, more of us will be using our public spaces and have the kinds of personal interactions that make a community great.

A Walkable/Bikable Community

We can also begin the gradual design and update of our roadways into smart streets, that integrate these sidewalks, along with bike lanes and the right safety and access features for pedestrians. Even smaller additions like tree plantings for shade and judicious placement of benches, when handled thoughtfully, can improve the aesthetics and encourage use of non-vehicle alternatives.

And then imagine the opportunities for recreation, fitness, and quality of life enhancement when we connect our sidewalk network to a Vista Grove Greenway, building out our own multi-use trail system between the South and North Fork Peachtree Creek trails and then to the emerging regional trail system.

With the energy, proactive planning and resources of our own city, we can revitalize our aging physical infrastructure — including, roads, stormwater systems, and missing connections like sidewalks — and build those out to get us ready for the future. It is time to get started on making Vista Grove a truly connected, walkable and bikeable community, one with safe and smart streets. It is both a short-term and and long-term investment, and one that can make our community stronger than ever.

The good news is that an engaged citizenry, with the right resources and civic platform to amplify their efforts, can create incredible change. We have seen that happen in the cities that have formed around us, both older ones like Chamblee, and newer ones, like Tucker and Brookhaven. Preserving the good and becoming the thriving, connected community we want to be, requires some change. Cities are helping drive that change, and with the voice and concentrated energy, planning and resources that a city would give us, Vista Grove can, too.

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