The mysterious nonprofit group proposing that Buckhead leave Atlanta for cityhood or annexation answered many questions — except about the identity of its own leaders — in a Jan. 20 virtual town hall where it asked for $10,000 to $15,000 in donations to conduct opinion polls.
Three members of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, who did not appear on camera and identified themselves by first name only, provided no few new details about their proposal, instead joining commenters in reviewing the crime, tax, zoning and infrastructure concerns that sparked their urge to study various forms of separatism. Not mentioned was the existing strong opposition from the Mayor’s Office, various elected officials and the neighborhood’s dominant business organizations. (See below for the full video of the meeting, which organizers said would be available for a limited time.)
BEC member “Sam” — apparently Sam Lenaeus, a Buckhead real estate agent who is the group’s CEO on its state corporation filing — emphasized that the group wants to study various options, including merely having a stronger voice with the city of Atlanta government. But he also made it clear that the group advocates cityhood and is starting by seeing whether the general public agrees.
“I’d say yes, we all are here because many of us are interested in that,” said Sam in response to a pro-cityhood comment. “The question is, is everybody interested, and I hope that they are.”
“As we said earlier, everything’s on the table,” Sam said at another point. “That could result in us seeking our own cityhood. It could also hopefully or possibly result in just a better voice with our current city.”
Some prominent opinions were readily available in comments from among the roughly 200 people who attended the live meeting on YouTube. Jim Durrett, one of the neighborhood’s most politically powerful figures in his dual role as head of the Buckhead Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District, showed up to emphasize that his groups do not support the separatism. They previously joined the Buckhead Business Association and Livable Buckhead in a joint statement condemning the BEC effort.
A commenter identified by name and photo as Trey Kelly, chair of the Fulton County Republican Party and a Buckhead resident, weighed in positively. “Great meeting,” he wrote in the YouTube comments. “Atlanta has become a nightmare. Let’s make it happen…”
When the committee first began forming last year, it was blasted by the Mayor’s Office — which operates on a unity slogan of “One Atlanta” — as divisive and questioned by other officials as impractical. Its credibility was not helped by a previous virtual presentation where a supposedly neutral moderator answered questions at the direction of unseen and mostly unnamed group leaders. The BEC’s recently launched website has no identifying information on its leaders or members, a mystery that continued in the town hall.
“Who are the board members and officers of this organization? You are asking for our money and there is zero transparency as to where it is going,” wrote one commenter in a question that, unlike all others, was not answered by BEC.
The one member identified in the previous virtual meeting was Randy Farmer. Someone using that name appeared in the comments section of the Jan. 20 town hall, advocating the cityhood concept.
The town hall leaders claimed that BEC is a diverse “grassroots movement” and organization of “hundreds of Buckhead citizens,” but did not provide any details to support that description. A private Facebook group for the BEC had 285 members at the time of the town hall.
The BEC members said the town hall would focus on the process of their study and avoid details of alternatives. But they ended up giving little information and spent most of the time reading and echoing detailed complaints about the neighborhood’s condition of the sort that regularly are vetted in meetings of traditional community organizations like Neighborhood Planning Units.
No details were given of the difficult legislative process that it would take for Buckhead to de-annex from Atlanta and then be re-annexed or incorporated, or of the fact that there is already an existing Georgia city called Buckhead. BEC members briefly referred to a process lasting two to four years and costing “anywhere from six figures to seven figures.”
Sam and Farmer referred to the political path previously laid out in the 2018 attempt by a country club community in the Henry County city of Stockbridge to separate into its own city, called Eagle’s Landing. That effort failed in a referendum, which BEC members mentioned, and amid intense controversies over racial and class division, which they did not mention. Farmer indicated in the comments that he believes policing would be better in Stockbridge if the Eagle’s Landing cityhood had succeeded.
Also mentioned were the pioneering cityhood movements over the past 15 years in north DeKalb and Fulton counties that led to the incorporations of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. However, all of those cities were in unincorporated areas and did not leave existing cities.
Talk of Buckhead leaving Atlanta has rumbled from time to time since the neighborhood was annexed in 1952, a political move made in part to keep the city’s voting rolls majority-White. Buckhead remains a majority-White neighborhood in a majority-Black city; is much wealthier than Atlanta as a whole; and is a bastion of Republican votes in a majority-Democrat city.
Those differences have led to repeated cityhood talk over the years, largely cast as concerns that taxpayers aren’t getting their money’s worth. This time, crime concerns are a major driver. Buckhead has seen some of the most organized criticism of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ policy responses to crime and Black Lives Matter protests, including the creation of a “Buckhead Security Plan” late last year.
But cityhood is an idea that has come and gone before. The most recent serious discussions followed the landmark 2005 incorporation of the neighboring city of Sandy Springs. In 2008, the now-defunct Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation hosted a Buckhead cityhood meeting that drew more than 200 attendees — including state legislators who poured cold water on the idea.
The idea revived in 2018, following the Eagle’s Landing secession attempt as well as the bruising 2017 mayoral election where Bottoms beat Buckhead political figure Mary Norwood. At that time, the Buckhead Coalition emphasized an “Atlanta Together” unity message through prayer services and speeches.
Sam said in the town hall he believes the “likelihood could be very high” of Buckhead becoming its own city if the citizens support the move. Asked specifically about the possibility of Buckhead leaving both Atlanta and Fulton County to join neighboring Cobb County, Sam said, “I guess we’re considering all options. That might not be the easiest or fastest path. There are other counties we could consider but Fulton could also be the answer.”
Wherever Buckhead ends up, Sam said a fundamental concern is that many of its residents and businesses are moving out of it. “I don’t want to live somewhere else,” he said. “I want things to be better here.”
The BEC says it is seeking both donations and volunteers. For more information, see its website at becnow.com.