Dispute delays Emory’s union with city of Atlanta

The largest expansion of Atlanta’s borders in decades, which would bring Emory University into the city, is on hold because of concerns about urbanization.

Emory’s annexation had originally been scheduled for a vote Tuesday by the Atlanta City Council, but that was delayed so a panel of five arbitrators could consider objections raised by DeKalb County’s elected officials.

They say Atlanta’s land use rules are more lax than the county’s, which could result in more development, density and traffic in the areas around the campus, permanently altering the nature of the community. Atlanta officials argue that their zoning requirements are similar to DeKalb’s.

The proposed 744-acre annexation would be the most significant addition to the city since Buckhead in 1952. Emory, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta petitioned to become part of the city in June. The arbitration board must decide by Oct. 17 whether the annexation would significantly change or harm the area. If so, the panel could force the city to prevent land use changes.

The annexation would allow city tax money to be used to fund a light-rail MARTA line from Lindbergh Station to the university’s campus. The area would remain in DeKalb County, but many services would be taken over by the city.

Georgia law allows counties to force arbitration to settle annexation disputes concerning changes in zoning, density and infrastructure.

But a review of previous cases indicates that counties usually don’t win many concessions, according to a Georgia Department of Community Affairs document outlining the outcomes of 24 arbitrations from 2007 to 2015.

In several cases, arbitrators required cities to make minor changes in their annexation plans to preserve existing land uses. Most annexation challenges were withdrawn or settled before the arbitrators rendered a verdict.

Melissa Mullinax, a senior adviser to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, said she’s confident the city’s zoning and land use requirements are close enough to the county’s for the annexation to proceed as planned. For example, while the city doesn’t have the county’s five-story limit on office buildings, it does prohibit tall buildings next to residential areas, she said.

“We look forward to completing this process and moving the annexation process forward for a vote by the Atlanta City Council,” Mullinax said. “The arbitration panel can only deal with zoning and land use. The differences between DeKalb and the city of Atlanta are minor.”

DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon said the arbitration can jump-start negotiations with the city.

When the DeKalb Commission voted 5-0 last month to object to the annexation, it cited concerns about potential development and its impacts on a historic district, strains on the county’s spill-prone sewer system, possible changes to school district boundaries and MARTA’s proposed line to Emory.

“I hope the arbitration raises the awareness level. The city, the county and Emory need to be talking in broader terms than just the impact of rezoning,” Gannon said. “It’s about how we deal with citizens who live around these new city boundaries.”

The arbitration process between aggrieved counties and growing cities was created by the Georgia General Assembly in 2007, when county officials raised concerns that annexations were unilaterally changing communities, said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association.

Early annexation disputes involved the expansions of the cities of Lawrenceville, Dacula and Loganville in Gwinnett County, and cities of Marietta and Smyrna in Cobb County, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

“These panels can’t stop the annexation from happening. They could say to a city, ‘If you annex this property, you can’t change the zoning on it for a year,’” Henderson said.

Emory spokesman Vince Dollard said the university respects the arbitration process and wants the annexation to move ahead.

“Emory worked closely with the city of Atlanta to ensure there are no proposed changes in zoning, land use or density with Emory’s annexation, and we believe that the arbitration panel will agree there are no such changes,” Dollard said.

The five-person arbitration panel will act as “judge and jury,” holding court-like hearings to review evidence presented by the city and the county, said Julie Sellers, a land use and zoning attorney for Atlanta commercial real estate firm Pursley Friese Torgrimson.

“One potential scenario would be … a zoning condition to truly mirror DeKalb County’s zoning regulations and put restrictions in place,” Sellers said.

The arbitrators were chosen from a pool of candidates from counties, cities and academic institutions. Both DeKalb County and the city of Atlanta were allowed to remove up to three candidates to reach the final five-person arbitration panel.

The panel has scheduled two public meetings so far: a pre-hearing conference on Sept. 13 and a formal hearing on Sept. 27.

“Elected officials should sit down and talk in detail before embarking on something of this magnitude,” said DeKalb County Attorney O.V. Brantley. “So now we will talk.”


The AJC's Mark Niesse keeps you updated on the latest happenings in DeKalb County government and politics. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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