DeKalb County, GA, December 22, 2015 – Commentary, by Tom Doolittle, Contributor – Two events occurred in the past two months that confirm cityhood detractors’ beliefs that legislative procedures undercount the significance of historical communities and residents’ sense of “place”. First came the November 3rd LaVista Hills and Tucker election results and next, a State Senate review of cityhood and annexation laws that was distributed last week and reported by The Post.
Community-of-interest: “respecting communities of interest often translates into respect for neighborhood boundaries, keeping distinct local communities together in one district so they can effectively organize and engage in civic life.”
The referendum results for LaVista Hills (a razor-thin loss, based on its current dysfunctional map) and Tucker (a win) will end any speculation and anecdotal data about which neighborhoods favor one community or another. On the Tucker/LaVista Hills border area along I-285 near Northlake, the precincts for BOTH cities had 60% and 70% approval ratings, validating the accuracy of the borders that were used. However, moving farther away from that border, Tucker’s votes remained strong but LaVista Hills’ favorability faltered. Precincts flipped to negative outside of the lakeside High School zone, calling into question its total map on a basis of unity of identity and goals. The city could have had an operating mandate capable of sailing through many of its decisions if ONLY a smaller map could be justified.
Unfortunately, a “tighter” community boundary would not have met “economic feasibility” constraints being used by the state House Government Affairs Committee. That’s where the four-month Senate review committee’s findings mentioned above become relevant to LaVista Hills’ boundary. Most of the legislature’s cityhood process has been found to have no basis in law. The list of rules having never been codified is astonishing. Referendums aren’t even required. The report takes aim at providing other means to test community favorability and economic feasibility, which the committee deems should look at economic potential along with conditions on Day 1.
For perspective, the current feasibility model showed Tucker to be capable of even sustaining a city with limited services. City managers would be aghast. A local banker told me that Tucker’s zip code (30084) has more small businesses than ANY single zip code in the 13-county Atlanta region. It also has a more diversified commercial economy with its industrial production than any of the new cities. Add its rail stop and connections to the rest of the region and “soft” power and you can easily anticipate its ability to operate successfully—REGARDLESS of the number of services it chose to provide. This is particularly true since the city would be UNIFIED of purpose.
For perspective about economic potential in what could be a democratically successful LaVista Hills, an area of eleven of twenty-four voting precincts approved the city by an average 57%, with those closest to I-285 at from 59% to 65%. Within that “zone of mandate”, there are five interstate exits along I-285 and I-85, including the Northlake Mall area and Lawrenceville Highway which would have synergy with borders with Tucker. There is already one Community Improvement District with the sole purpose of economic development and revitalization. By way of comparison, Perimeter Centers’ CID in DeKalb more than doubled its tax role in its first five years. Mixed-use zoning “character areas” have already been approved in strategic planning for several of the interchanges, which would remove several years from the development process for recruiting purposes.
My point? To strap a cityhood effort with some lame “feasibility” test resting on the current tax production of these areas is surreal. As with Tucker, the requirements as now defined are short-sighted and inflexible and undersell LaVista Hills capability closer to I-285. These are economic development dynamos that are simply waiting for a new city to “flip a switch”. A different study would show that commercial areas along North Druid Hills Road are not necessary—thereby reducing the city population about 40%. Such a LaVista Hills would win in a referendum landslide, draw a higher level of participation at the polls and in fact, could stand up to any pre-referendum petition test or measure of neighborhood affinity and unity of goals.
Cityhood supporters should welcome the Senate Committee report as an opportunity to help legislators rewrite a comprehensive law. Requirements could be broadly written to accommodate optional approaches at testing interest for new cities and proving they can stand as viable cities, economically and otherwise.