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The coming battle for Northlake Mall


If things get out of hand, next year’s session of the Legislature could become the Battle of Northlake Mall.

We’ve got a land rush going on in DeKalb County that could require the attention of the entire state Capitol. And allow ruling Republicans to reshape Georgia’s most Democratic county.

This article comes courtesy of Wednesday’s lunch-time gathering of the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, where four state lawmakers provided the entertainment, moderated by yours truly.

Quickly, we achieved unanimous, bipartisan agreement that, outside of a few uncomplicated fixes, the re-making of DeKalb County’s form of government – something that both Gov. Nathan Deal and acting CEO Lee May want — will have to wait until 2015.

State Rep. Michele Henson, D-Stone Mountain, offered one reason. “People want something different, but they don’t they don’t know what. They don’t know what changes need to be made,” she said.

But there is an even larger reason for delay: No one knows what DeKalb County will look like by the time state lawmakers abandon Atlanta in the spring.

The city of Dunwoody was created in 2008. Brookhaven sprang into existence a year ago. This year, the Legislature will consider three bills to create three separate DeKalb County cities – Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker.

All three have overlapping boundaries, roughly south and east of the nexus of I-285 and I-85. Specifically, all three would-be cities lay claim to Northlake Mall, the retail giant whose sales taxes are key to viability.

Under normal legislative circumstances, such boundary disputes would be deemed the internal business of the lawmakers who represent the county. But the racial and political tension surrounding the cityhood movement in Georgia – beginning with the creation of Sandy Springs in 2005 – has resulted in Republicans circumventing Democratically-controlled local delegations.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly as a whole will determine what a citified DeKalb County will look like. And it may not stop with those three cities to the north. A proposal for a city of Stonecrest in south DeKalb has already been dropped. And we’ve heard talk that even the city of Atlanta is considering a boundary push deeper into DeKalb, toward Druid Hills and Emory University.

Democrats want to slow the process down – and gain a measure of control over it. “I’m tired of people in Hahira telling us in DeKalb County what we should do,” said state Rep. Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, chairman of the DeKalb legislative delegation.

“It’s only fair that we get to discuss these things as a train goes through your living room. Stop and see who you’re running over while you’re doing it,” said state Sen. Steve Henson, D-Tucker.

But state Sen. Fran Millar of Dunwoody, the only Republican on the Chamber panel and the champion of a city of Lakeside, said the train won’t be stopped. “The cityhood movement is here to stay,” he said.

But even if Millar’s Lakeside bill clears a GOP-controlled Senate, the measure might have trouble navigating through the House. That’s a veteran Republican opinion.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs sponsored the legislation creating the city of Brookhaven. Both Brookhaven and Dunwoody had clear, logical boundaries, Jacobs said in a telephone interview.

“It appears to be a dicier proposition south of I-85, where you have three competing proposals, all with proponents and all apparently with feasibility studies that will be ready by the end of the year,” Jacobs said.

Favor one city-building group in this Republican-rich section of DeKalb, and you’re bound to tick off the two others. In an election year, that causes second thoughts.

One person to watch in the coming debate is state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, a Democrat who on occasion has the ear of House Speaker David Ralston.

Oliver doesn’t dispute that citification is coming to DeKalb. “I think it’s inevitable that in the next 25 years we’ll have a municipalized county,” she said Friday. The movement will spread to Cobb and Gwinnett counties as well, she predicted.

In her own county, what Oliver wants to avoid is a Fulton County-style stampede in which the first communities to become cities grab the most lucrative tax bases – leaving the county government and other cities to survive on leftovers.

“The current land-grab craziness is bad for everyone,” Oliver said.

The Decatur lawmaker is calling for a “nothing or everything” approach. Oliver would prefer a moratorium while a more systematic pathway for the creation of cities is established.

Barring that, she would push for the negotiated, simultaneous citification of all of DeKalb, nullifying the “sooner” effect.

Oliver said she has no idea how DeKalb’s cityhood wars will play out. “This has never happened before,” she said.

And that’s why no one knows what DeKalb County will look like come March.

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  • Britain's fire-safety crisis expanded substantially Saturday as authorities said 34 high-rise apartment blocks across the country had cladding that failed fire safety tests. London officials scrambled to evacuate four public housing towers after experts found them 'not safe for people to sleep in overnight.' Hundreds of residents hastily packed their bags and sought emergency shelter, with many angry and confused about the chaotic situation. Some refused to leave their high-rise apartments. Scores of evacuees slept on inflatable beds in a gym while officials sought better accommodations for them. Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said it decided to evacuate four blocks in north London's Chalcots Estate late Friday after fire inspectors uncovered problems with 'gas insulation and door stops,' which, combined with the presence of flammable cladding encasing the buildings, meant residents had to leave immediately. The evacuation comes amid widening worries about the safety of high-rise apartment blocks across the country following the inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London on June 14, killing at least 79 people. Attention has focused on the 24-story tower's external cladding material, which has been blamed for the rapid spread of that blaze, but multiple other fire risks have now been identified in some housing blocks. The government said Saturday that the cladding samples that failed fire safety tests came from 34 apartment towers in cities including London, Manchester, Plymouth and Portsmouth. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said further testing 'is running around the clock.' So far, Camden Council has been the only local authority to have asked residents to leave as a precaution. It said about 650 apartments were evacuated, though initial reports put the figure at 800 apartments. The council said residents would be out of their homes for three to four weeks while it completes fire-safety upgrades. 'I know some residents are angry and upset, but I want to be very clear that Camden Council acted to protect them,' Gould said in a statement. 'Grenfell changed everything, and when told our blocks were unsafe to remain in, we acted.' Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been criticized for her slow response to the Grenfell tragedy, said Saturday that the government was supporting Camden officials to ensure residents have somewhere to stay while building work is done. In response, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said May needed to 'get a grip' and lead a stronger response to what is now a 'national threat.' Residents — including families with babies and elderly relatives — trooped out of the buildings late Friday night with suitcases and plastic bags stuffed with clothes. Council workers guided dozens to a nearby gym, where they spent the night on inflatable mattresses. Others were being put up in hotels or other housing projects. Many residents complained about a lack of information and confusion. Officials first announced the evacuation of one building, then expanded it to five before reducing it to four. Some residents said they learned about the evacuation from the television news hours before officials came knocking on doors. Renee Williams, 90, who has lived in Taplow Tower since 1968, told Britain's Press Association: 'No official came and told us what's going on. I saw it on the TV, so I packed an overnight bag. 'It's unbelievable. I understand that it's for our safety but they can't just ask us to evacuate with such short notice. There's no organization and it's chaos,' she said. Carl McDowell, 31, said he took one look at the inflatable beds at the gym and went back to his Taplow apartment to sleep there overnight. Other residents were distraught that they were ordered to evacuate, but were told to leave their pets behind in buildings that could be dangerous. Fire-safety experts say the Grenfell Tower blaze, which police said was touched off by a fire at a refrigerator, was probably due to a string of failures, not just the cladding, which is widely used to provide insulation and enhance the appearance of buildings. Police said Friday they are considering filing manslaughter charges in the Grenfell disaster and they were conducting a wide-ranging investigation that will look at everything that contributed to it. The Metropolitan Police said cladding attached to Grenfell during a recent renovation failed safety tests conducted by investigators. 'We are looking at every criminal offense from manslaughter onwards,' Detective Superintendent Fiona McCormack told reporters. 'We are looking at all health and safety and fire safety offenses, and we are reviewing every company at the moment involved in the building and refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.' The government has ordered an immediate examination of the refrigerator model that started the blaze, the Hotpoint model FF175BP refrigerator-freezer. The government also urged building owners, public and private, to submit samples of their cladding. One hotel chain, Premier Inn, has calling in experts to check its buildings. Police say 79 people are either confirmed or presumed dead in the Grenfell blaze, although that number may change, and it will take weeks to find and identify remains. To encourage cooperation with authorities, May said the government won't penalize any Grenfell fire survivors who were in the country illegally. ___ Sheila Norman-Culp, Gregory Katz and Alastair J. Grant contributed to this report.
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  • The Latest on response to deadly tower-block fire in London (all times local): 8:55 p.m. Britain's government now says cladding samples from 34 high-rise apartment towers across the country have failed fire safety tests. Earlier Saturday, officials had put the figure of affected tower blocks at 27, saying they are located in cities from London to Manchester and Portsmouth. Urgent testing is being conducted on external siding panels on apartment blocks following the deadly June 14 blaze that engulfed Grenfell Tower, killing at least 79 people. Flammable cladding was blamed for helping that fire spread so rapidly throughout the 24-story building. Officials in north London's Camden area have been evacuating hundreds of residents from four public housing blocks on Friday and Saturday after fire inspectors found issues with the buildings' cladding, gas pipe insulation and fire doors. ___ 2:55 p.m. British Prime Minister Theresa May says the government is supporting local authorities in London to make sure residents evacuated from four public housing blocks due to fire safety concerns will have somewhere to stay. Over 600 apartments were evacuated overnight after fire inspectors concluded that the buildings, in north London's Camden area, were unsafe because of problematic fire doors, gas pipe insulation, and external cladding similar to that blamed for the rapid spread of a fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower on June 14. Residents say they were given little notice and were forced to seek emergency shelter. May added that the government is working with local authorities across the country to address fire safety fears about apartment towers. ___ 11:30 a.m. Britain's Press Association reports that dozens of people have refused to leave their homes on a London housing estate, defying efforts by officials to evacuate some apartment blocks due to fire safety concerns. Camden Council in north London decided that hundreds of residents at the Chalcots Estate had to leave Friday night amid safety fears linked to the deadly inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower on June 14. Four tower blocks were evacuated following worries about the blocks' external cladding and gas pipe insulation. Many people gathered at a nearby leisure center used as a temporary shelter complained about the chaotic situation. Carl McDowell, 31, said he took one look at the packed inflatable beds offered in the center's gym and went back to his own apartment. He said officials knocked on residents' doors Friday night, two hours after he had heard about the evacuation on the news. Camden Council leader Georgia Gould said if residents had not left their homes after being visited again by officials on Saturday, 'it will become a matter for the fire service.' ___ 11:10 a.m. Britain's government now says that 27 high-rise apartment blocks in 15 areas have failed fire cladding safety tests. Officials had said earlier that samples of cladding panels from 14 buildings in London, Manchester and Plymouth had been found to be combustible. The testing is being done as officials around Britain scramble to assess the safety of apartment buildings following the June 14 inferno that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London, killing an estimated 79 people. Combustible cladding used to insulate that tower and improve its appearance has been blamed for the rapid spread of the blaze. ___ 10:10 a.m. A local council in London says it evacuated some 650 homes overnight after inspectors found fire safety issues in four public housing towers, following the inferno in awest London apartment block that killed 79. The revised number was lower than the 800 estimated Friday night. Camden Borough Council says in a statement Saturday that it housed many of the residents at two temporary shelters while many others were provided hotel rooms. The council is working with police, firefighters and the British Red Cross to help the evacuees. Sky News quoted council leader Georgia Gould as saying the council secured 270 hotel rooms, 100 places in local public housing projects and asked neighboring boroughs for support. ___ 8:15 a.m. The residents of roughly 800 apartments in London have been evacuated due to fire-safety concerns. Many are being housed Saturday in temporary shelters. The unusual evacuation follows the fire that claimed at least 79 lives in a London high-rise last week. That fire was found to have been spread by a type of exterior cladding also found on the buildings that were evacuated. Camden Council in north London started the evacuation Friday night so urgent safety upgrades could begin. Officials say they acted because fire officials said they could not guarantee the safety of residents. Similar inspections are ongoing elsewhere in Britain on hundreds of buildings.
  • Over a million people have visited the relics of Saint Nicholas, one of the Russian Orthodox Church's most revered figures, since they were brought to Moscow last month. A total of 1,021,500 people have paid their respects to the holy remains, according to data published Saturday on an official website for the relics. The queue to see the fragments of the saint's bones on display has regularly extended several kilometers from Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior since the May 23 beginning of public viewings. The huge turnout underlines the important of the Orthodox Church and the defining role religion plays for many Russians a quarter-century after the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union. The relics, on loan from Italy, will be moved to St. Petersburg later this month.
  • After days of showers and storms, more rain is on tap for Saturday. But drier air is coming soon. Several thunderstorm warnings were issued as strong storms moved through parts of metro Atlanta Friday evening. The storms brought heavy rain and damaging wind. We'll have the timing on when sunshine will finally take over on Channel 2 Action News. [Download the free Severe Weather Team 2 app for weather alerts] Severe Weather Team 2 Meteorologist Brad Nitz said there were reports of trees down in parts of the north metro. Nitz said there is a chance for rain overnight Friday and into Saturday. After a cloudy start, widespread rain is likely Saturday afternoon and early evening. [PHOTOS: Storms move through several metro counties] Drier air will start to move in Saturday night. More rain could cause ponding on roads, flooding of poor drainage areas, creeks and streams. Sunshine and temperatures in the low 80s are ahead for the start of next week.