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Atlanta council weighs in on annexation possibilities

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has made public his support for annexing Druid Hills and a portion of south Fulton, two areas on the edges of town that are now in heavy talks about their respective futures.

In recent weeks, he has made overtures to the Sandtown community in Fulton and welcomed a group of Druid Hills homeowners who are considering joining Atlanta. Reed recently said the neighborhoods are interested and he views that as “a favorable commentary on the state of the city.”

For Reed, the annexations could be the crown jewels of his two terms, an exclamation point on his leadership before yielding his office to Atlanta’s next mayor. After all, the potential annexations would be the city’s largest since the early 1950s, when Atlanta added Buckhead, Bolton, Adamsville, Lakewood Heights and others.

Atlanta’s expansion also could have a political impact, one city leaders are sure to consider when deciding whether to support the growth.

“You brought in a mayor with the last annexation,” said District 11 Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms, who along with Reed was eligible to run for Atlanta office after their southwest neighborhood was annexed in the mid-2000s. “It remains to be seen, but I do know history repeats itself. (Our annexation) meant a tremendous amount to the city, not just the expansion of the boundaries but the people involved in the politics of the city.”

Bottoms has played a key role in talks with south Fulton residents, who are largely divided over the issue. Some have expressed support for forming a new city, while a handful of neighborhoods are pushing toward joining Atlanta. Reed sweetened the pot in recent weeks by suggesting the Sandtown community could receive a 10-year property tax freeze.

Bottoms said it’s too soon to know just how many residents could potentially become Atlantans.

Meanwhile, a group of residents in Druid Hills are lobbying to join Atlanta after the DeKalb County School district rejected a charter school “cluster” of Druid Hills High and other schools. The community recently submitted to state leaders a proposed map that joins their area with Atlanta and includes Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the annexation would come as many as 26,000 voters, according to several people involved in the discussions.

Bottoms, a second-term councilwoman, said she’d support annexing both communities, which historically have high-voter participation rates.

The neighborhoods have dramatically different racial compositions. South Fulton would bring a majority black voting bloc, while Druid Hills is majority white. And that, says District 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore, is the “underlying current” of annexation discussions.

“Of course, everything is about race in Atlanta,” she said, with a laugh. “… I’m sure there are people who want to make sure it keeps a balance so that, if we do bring in Druid Hills, there be a complement of black persons who are included in the city as well.”

Moore said her decision on whether to support annexations comes down to fiscal, and not political matters. She said she wants to see more details about whether Atlanta can afford the additional costs of expanding services.

“I always like to look at things from a fiscal standpoint,” she said. “I think there needs to be some discussion that, if we decide to annex either or both, that it makes good fiscal sense not just for them but for all citizens of Atlanta.”

District 5 Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong agreed that, when it comes to annexations, “the devil is in the details.” New residents must decide whether they want their children to attend Atlanta Public Schools and will be subject to new taxes.

“I do think Atlanta is a very attractive city so wanting to join makes a whole lot of sense,” she said. “We should be looking at the possibilities.”

District 2 Councilman Kwanza Hall, who along with Bottoms and Council President Ceasar Mitchell is considered a likely candidate for mayor, also said he’d support annexing both.

Hall, originally from southwest Atlanta, represents one of Atlanta’s most diverse districts, an area covering Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park. A portion of Druid Hills could be added to his district, as well as District 6 Councilman Alex Wan’s.

In Hall’s view, there’s little downside to adding Druid Hills, which he describes as affluent, educated group.

“As a councilmember for an area that is not majority African-American, and having run and been elected twice … it has been a positive thing in terms of not being judged based on my racial background,” said Hall, who is black. “It’s similar to a district and to the people that I already represent.”

Myriad hurdles remain before either group can move forward, city leaders urged. State leaders must settle on a proposed Druid Hills map and then authorize a referendum that could come as early as November 2015. The referendum would have to pass by a majority vote of residents inside the borders of the affected areas.

South Fulton residents are trying to join Atlanta in a different way, by winning support through the petition form of annexation. This method requires 60 percent approval from registered voters and land owners by mass. Those groups would then submit the petition to Atlanta leaders to decide whether to annex.

And both groups must also sort out whether their children will attend Atlanta Public Schools. The Atlanta council will ultimately be asked to sign-off on the new communities.

Wan, who has been in active talks with Druid Hills for well over a year, said it’s similar to the Virginia Highland and Morningside neighborhoods in his district. He sees adding the area as a boon to the city’s tax base and a way to bolster economies of scale.

He’s less focused on the political implications of annexing the area, he said.

“I’m not naive. I’m sure there are folks considering (the politics),” he said. “Politics will always be politics and enter the process, but there are folks who are way better at it than I. … I’m better focused on the merits of the proposition.”

Staff writers David Wickert and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this report.

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