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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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