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03 June 2016

Alpharetta, Sandy Springs Taxpayers Could Pay the Price for Annexation Disputes in South Fulton

Local elected official Marvin Arrington, Jr. could end up costing taxpayers in Alpharetta and Sandy Springs a lot of money over an annexation dispute in unincorporated south Fulton County.

Arrington, a Democrat, convinced his colleagues on the Fulton County Commission to overrule the recommendations of county staff and object to a trio of annexations proposed by the cities of Atlanta and College Park.

"I'm voting no to any commercial annexation before June 30th," Arrington wrote in a recent email exchange with Georgia Unfiltered. "I will ask all other commissioners to do the same."

The new city Commissioner Arrington mentioned is the proposed city of South Fulton.

State lawmakers passed House Bill 514 during the 2016 legislative session. House Bill 514 sets up a November referendum on cityhood in unincorporated south Fulton County. The legislation also sets a 1 July 2016 deadline for property owners and residents to annex out of the proposed city of South Fulton before the borders are locked.

The annexation proposed by College Park is mostly commercial property, which Commissioner Arrington opposes because he believes the loss of valuable commercial land would be unfair to the proposed city of South Fulton. Arrington's opposition to the Martin's Park community annexing into Atlanta, however, is in stark contrast to an earlier stance he took on the issue.

Before his 1 June 2016 vote against the Martin's Park annexation, Arrington told Georgia Unfiltered he was not opposed to residents going into nearby cities.

"I'm fine with residential annexation prior to June 30th except the one involving Randolph elementary and Sandtown middle school. This will leave less people to vote no to the new city," Arrington said.

The Arrington-led objection to annexation sets up a potentially expensive arbitration process that could leave all Fulton County taxpayers, from Alpharetta and Sandy Springs to Hapeville and Chattahoochee Hills, responsible for picking up the check.

Amy Henderson, Director of Communications & Marketing for the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA), pointed to a GMA publication that helps provide guidance to cities on the state's annexation law.

Growing Cities, Growing Georgia cites O.C.G.A. § 36-36-115, which says Fulton County can be held liable for up to 100% of the annexation arbitration costs if it is determined that the county's objection is substantially frivolous.

Another GMA publication, The Arbitration Handbook for Annexation Land Use Disputes, details how the arbitration panel may decide if a county's objection is frivolous.

"The county must document the nature of the objection. In particular, the county must show that the objection is grounded on a material increase in burden upon the county directly related to a proposed change in land use or zoning, a proposed increase in density, or infrastructure demands related to the proposed change in zoning or land use. The county must provide evidence of any financial impact forming the basis of the objection. If any of these requirements are not met, the objection is not proper," the Handbook reads.

How much could south Fulton annexation arbitration cost the county? One Dawson County Commissioner, in a similar dispute, put a $20,000 price tag on the mediation.

The Dawson County Advertiser reported, in 2015, that an annexation dispute between the City of Dawsonville and Dawson County narrowly avoided arbitration after the Dawson County Commission voted to withdraw their objection.

"I cannot spend taxpayer money in the amount of $15,000 to $20,000," Dawson County Commissioner James Swafford is quoted as saying.

Dawson County Commission Chairman Mike Berg agreed, saying, "There is no need to spend money on arbitration."

The Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA) is responsible for administering the appointment of arbitration panels in connection with annexation disputes.

Jon West, a Senior Planner in the DCA Office of Planning and Environmental Management, tells Georgia Unfiltered, "The annexation arbitration process isn't designed to allow a county government to halt an annexation.

"Instead, the process provides an opportunity for a group of neutrals to listen to both sides of the argument," West continued. "The arbitration panel can, if it chooses, impose restrictions on the manner in which newly annexed land can be developed (which only last for one year) to help ease the burden that the annexation places upon the county."

Georgia Unfiltered asked Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves if the annexation proposals cannot be stopped, what is the purpose of objecting other than making a symbolic political gesture.

"It is never a symbolic political gesture when our citizens ask for help," Eaves responded. "Our constituents have expressed to us their concerns about annexation and we want them to know we are listening. On their behalf, it is our privilege to express their wishes to all of those involved in the process. We will let that process move forward.”