Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
If Georgia allows the new city of Eagle’s Landing to form, it will set new precedents that could be racially and economically damaging to metro Atlanta.
Last November, the city of Stockbridge, a small municipality about 20 miles south of Atlanta, elected its first black mayor: Anthony Ford, a retired, decorated U.S. Army Colonel. Not only that, but several other African Americans were elected, making this the first time in its history that Stockbridge would be governed by an all-black city council and mayor.
Five months later, the state passed two bills allowing one of Stockbridge’s wealthiest communities, Eagle’s Landing, to break off to form its own city. That moving schedule might appear racist on its face, especially since it was initiated by a woman named Vikki Consiglio who happens to be white. Consiglio has pointed out, though, that the new city of Eagle’s Landing, if formed, would be a diverse city, with an estimated 46 percent African-American and 40 percent white population.
Consiglio has also said that Eagle’s Landing is a high-income community that wants to attract more high-income families and businesses to it. According to a 2016 report from the Atlanta Regional Commission, the Eagle’s Landing neighborhood has a median household income of $128,570—one of the highest in the Atlanta metro region. Meanwhile, the median household income for African Americans living in Stockbridge is less than half of that.
“The pocket of high-income area in Henry County [is] Eagle’s Landing,” Consiglio said. “So we said if we just took this area and have a city and we could raise that per capita income, would that not attract those things we’re looking for?”
It’s questionable that race had nothing to do with the proposed separation. Stockbridge’s former mayor Lee Stuart, who is white, has already publicly stated that some residents don’t want to live in a city governed by an all-black squad of officials. Whether there are stated racist intentions for separating Eagle’s Landing from Stockbridge or not, though, the move could certainly lead to racist and classist outcomes.
Indeed, carving out a wealthier community from its surroundings replicates the genesis of the cityhood movement of metro Atlanta, where predominantly white and wealthy areas in Atlanta’s suburbs have municipalized, usually around the time when too many African Americans have become elected to the offices that govern them. It started in Fulton County, which encompasses most of west-metro Atlanta, when Sandy Springs broke off into a city in 2005. Since then roughly 10 other cities have formed. When the large city of South Fulton formed last year, it ate up most of what was left of Fulton County’s remaining unincorporated land, effectively putting the county out of business.
DeKalb County, which covers most of metro Atlanta’s eastern parts, is currently headed in the same direction, with many of its newest cities having formed from, again, heavily white and higher-income communities—a trend that began shortly after DeKalb County elected its first black CEO and majority-black commission board. The result of this is that hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the left-over unincorporated parts of DeKalb County are left footing the bill for county services.
Such would be the case if Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signs the bill to officially start the process of seceding Eagle’s Landing away from Stockbridge, which is in another county in metro Atlanta’s southern region. Since Eagle’s Landing consists of Stockbridge’s wealthiest families—and also holds many of Stockbridge’s commercial corridors—a much smaller and poorer populace would be responsible for paying off the city’s outstanding bonds and debts. That scenario is freaking out the financial institutions that are holding those debts, which is why they vehemently oppose the municipalization of Eagle’s Landing.
“The proposed legislation, if enacted into law, would negatively and comprehensively, affect the ability of the City to operate with any degree of efficiency to serve the interests of the people,” reads a letter from the municipal financial advisor firm Kidwell & Company, “while inflicting irreparable harm to the ability of the City to develop economically.”
Below is a snapshot of that letter where the firm details all the ways that Stockbridge would be impacted.
Not only that, but if Deal signs the Eagle’s Landing deal, it would be the first time that Georgia allowed a new city to form by taking land away from another city. The Eagle’s Landing proposal would carve off 48 percent of Stockbridge’s assessable residential property value and 54 percent of its assessable commercial property.
There is plenty of precedent in Georgia for annexing unincorporated land to form new cities. There is no precedent for annexing land that is already incorporated to form a new city. Should this fly, it would open the door for more proposals around the state to allow communities to simply grab the choicest neighborhoods from already established cities to start new ones. In fact, the Eagle’s Landing proposal team provides instructions to neighborhoods that want to break off and join the new city on its website’s Q&A page:
“If the [bills to make Eagle’s Landing a city] passes, adjoining neighborhoods can request to be annexed into the new city area,” reads the Q&A page. “There is a legal process for doing this. In the meantime we encourage you to get 60 percent of your neighbors to sign a petition to be annexed when the time comes.”
It’s not difficult to see how that new precedent could end up reinforcing and metastasizing the kinds of problems that launched the cityhood movement to begin with. Take DeKalb County, where efforts are afoot to convert what remains of its unincorporated (and mostly African-American) neighborhoods into a new city called Greenhaven. This proposal was spurred primarily to leverage more economic development in these communities. But it was also made necessary by the fact that the new cities formed in DeKalb took large chunks of the county’s primest residential and commercial properties of the books, leaving behind a smaller and less-wealthy pool of taxpayers to cover the county’s debts.
There is a lot of opposition to this proposal, much of it from some of the wealthier neighborhoods of would-be Greenhaven. However, if Greenhaven formed, and the Eagle’s Landing neighborhood-grab precedent was set, those better-resourced neighborhoods could simply carve their own cities out of Greenhaven, or annex to another city, to avoid Greenhaven governance, just like the original cities did to avoid DeKalb County governance. It becomes a secession waltz set to the tune of segregation.
Many of those who oppose the cityhood movement in general do so on the grounds that the state’s rules around forming new cities are too fast and loose. Indeed, with the state’s minimal criteria, it might be harder to start a new Boy Scout troop than it is to start a new city in Georgia. This is where the anti-cityhood movement has a point. There has been little research on how this serial municipalization will impact metro Atlanta, which is why the state and DeKalb County are scrambling to study the phenomenon now.
But unfortunately this ship may have already sailed. If studies end up showing that cityhood will cripple the region financially, or make it more difficult to expand region-wide mass transit, which Atlanta desperately needs, then what could be done about it? Revoke the charters of the cities that have already formed? That’s hardly a practical fix, especially considering the economic and demographic composition of those cities.
Georgia state Senator Renee Unterman, a Republican, said that by starting this cityhood movement, she believes the state “created a monster,” reported WABE, Atlanta’s public radio news outlet. But it’s difficult to conceive how to put that monster back in a box. Meanwhile, In 2020, Stockbridge will celebrate its 100th year of being a city. That is, of course, if it’s still around.