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.