The city of Brookhaven could soon spread its borders even further south of I-85, just two months after annexing the LaVista Park community. But DeKalb County officials are fighting back against the snowball effect generated by the multibillion-dollar expansions of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University at I-85 and North Druid Hills Road and are asking a state agency to intervene in the city’s newest annexation proposal.
The property owner of the nearly 7 acres at 2601 North Druid Hills Road is seeking annexation into the city to make way for Miami-based Related Group to build more than 300 luxury apartments, a 7-story hotel and other office and retail buildings at the busy corner of North Druid Hills and Briarcliff roads. The owners of several other commercial parcels totaling some 20 acres near the intersection are joining the annexation request.
The possibility of losing more land and tax revenue to Brookhaven is frustrating county officials. “We are concerned … based on a variety of issues,” DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader said. “This is an area where we could lose our tax base.”
The City Council is scheduled to vote Feb. 25 on the annexation request and on the mixed-use development. But on Jan. 10, the county filed a list of objections to the annexation and asked the Department of Community Affairs, a state agency which provides local government assistance, to appoint an arbitration panel. The panel would work with both governments to try to find common ground before any legal action may take place.
If the city approves the annexation and mixed-use development as is, the county’s already burdened infrastructure, including roads, water and sanitary sewer, would be adversely impacted, according to county officials.
“The proposed annexation and affiliated changes in zoning, land use and resulting density impact will, by definition, increase the stresses on DeKalb’s existing infrastructure, which is designed to serve existing density projects,” DeKalb County Attorney Viviane Ernstes said in a letter to Mayor John Ernst and the City Council.
When there is an annexation dispute, the DCA appoints a 5-person arbitration panel. The volunteer panel is made up of county and elected officials from different jurisdictions and an academic. The panel does not authorize or deny an annexation, but may decide to attach zoning, land use and density conditions.
DCA spokesperson David Lassiter said Jan. 28 the DCA is currently recruiting volunteers for the panel in a process that takes 15 days.
Once a panel is seated, all parties come to the table to discuss their disputes to try to come up with a solution agreeable to the city and county. This could include shrinking the annexed area or reducing the density of the mixed-use development.
The arbitration panel must then issue its decision within 60 days of being appointed. If the city or county disagrees with the arbitration panel’s decision, they can take their case to DeKalb County Superior Court.
City spokesperson Burke Brennan said the county’s objections “do not appear to have any basis in facts or law.”
“There seems to be a continuing misperception that Brookhaven sought this annexation or precipitated it. This is not true,” Brennan said. “These landowners have sought to be part of the city of Brookhaven, and the city of Brookhaven is obligated by state law to accept such applications for review.” He added the county did not oppose the city’s December annexation of LaVista Park, a mostly residential area south of Executive Park.
Councilmember Joe Gebbia, whose district includes CHOA and Emory, said recently he is constantly fielding calls from property owners interested in being annexed into Brookhaven.
The controversial Vista Grove cityhood initiative is expected to be debated again in the General Assembly this year. The new city’s map would include properties at North Druid Hills and Briarcliff roads seeking to come into Brookhaven.
“The mode is [property owners] would rather deal with Brookhaven, a known entity,” Gebbia said.
A key concern for the county is that if the annexation and mixed-use development are approved by the city, the significantly higher density would strain even further the county’s already burdened water and sanitary sewer systems.
The development is also incompatible with the county’s comprehensive plan for the area intended to “provide convenient local retail shopping and service areas for residents,” Ernstes said in the letter.
In December, Brookhaven annexed the historic LaVista Park community located south of Executive Park after residents secured enough signatures to bypass a referendum. The annexation included mostly residential property and raised the city’s population by about 2,000. The city’s estimated population before adding LaVista Park was about 54,000. Residents said they sought annexation into Brookhaven to ensure they have a voice in Emory’s redevelopment of Executive Park.
Also in December, Related Group, the developer behind two of Atlanta’s tallest apartment towers, submitted plans to the city to build more than 380 apartments in 6-story buildings, a 7-story hotel, a 7-story parking deck and a 4-story office and retail building at 2601 North Druid Hills Road. The project would replace the aging Briarcliff Station.
But the developer can only build a high-density project under Brookhaven’s zoning regulations. DeKalb County’s zoning does not allow the type of development Related Group wants to build, according to its application with Brookhaven. Related Group also intends to ask the city for tax incentives, which DeKalb County opposes.
Surrounding property owners collectively agreed to join Related Group’s annexation request. They include the Target shopping center at 2400 North Druid Hills Road, the QuikTrip at 2375 North Druid Hills Road, the Chick-fil-A at 2334 North Druid Hills Road, a LensCrafters at 2368 North Druid Hills Road, and the Boston Market at 2535 Briarcliff Road.
The property at 2601 North Druid Hills Road currently includes one-story buildings and about 35,000 square feet, according to the county. Related Group’s plans for the site includes adding more than 800,000 square feet in buildings that average six stories. The project would create a “drastic increase” and “create a substantial adverse impact” on county water and sewer services, according to Ernstes.
“The applicants here have neither discussed their proposed development with the county nor filed the required sewer capacity requests, estimating the development’s impact on the county’s existing water and sanitary sewer infrastructure,” she said in the letter.
“As such, the county has no way to estimate the impact the drastic increase in proposed density might have on such water and sanitary sewer infrastructure,” Ernstes said.
The impact would “likely increase exponentially as the remaining … parcels are redeveloped,” she said.
City leaders have said they envisioned the expansions of CHOA and Emory to spark redevelopment throughout the area. Related Group intends to target its new luxury apartments to employees of CHOA and Emory moving to the area, according to Woody Galloway, attorney for the developer.
Rader said among the biggest issues about the annexation request is the county’s responsibility to protect the interests of those living in the unincorporated area who may be impacted by new development.
“By annexing into Brookhaven, they have constrained the vested stakeholders … on the other side of the line,” Rader said. “Now they have no representation on the decisions on what happens there.”
Traffic was a major concern by many residents living in unincorporated DeKalb County during a Jan. 2 community meeting to learn more about Related Group’s plans.
Ernstes cited that as well, saying as development occurs in the annexed area, “the bulk of traffic and road impact would fall on unincorporated DeKalb’s roads and residents, rather than the city’s roads and residents.”
DeKalb County also questions the legality of the city’s “special tax districts” for newly annexed areas. The districts allow the city to charge property owners in annexed areas the higher property tax rates they were paying in DeKalb County.
The money is then put into a fund to be used to repair roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure and, according to the city, to not drain money from the existing tax base.