An elite Ge­or­gia sub­urb’s ef­fort to se­cede falls short

Were race and money the driv­ing forces be­hind a mea­sure to cre­ate a new city?

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Jenny Jarvie

AT­LANTA — Res­i­dents of an af­flu­ent sub­urb south of At­lanta went to the polls this week to vote on a plan to se­cede from their neigh­bors and cre­ate a new city, Ea­gle’s Land­ing. Af­ter bit­ter de­bates about eco­nomic devel­op­ment and race, 57% of res­i­dents in the pro­posed city area who cast bal­lots voted no.

The pro­posal to carve out Ea­gle’s Land­ing was con­tentious be­cause it would have seized the most up­scale res­i­den­tial pock­ets of the ex­ist­ing city of Stock­bridge, as well as its main com­mer­cial cor­ri­dor that brings in about half of the city’s $9 mil­lion in an­nual rev­enue.

Those who would have been left be­hind in Stock­bridge did not have the op­por­tu­nity to vote.

Vikki Con­siglio, who led the ef­fort to cre­ate Ea­gle’s Land­ing, said she ac­cepted the ma­jor­ity vote against the new city. Still, she hoped Stock­bridge lead­ers would lis­ten to the thou­sands of res­i­dents who voted in fa­vor of change, many ar­gu­ing they wanted to at­tract more high-end ameni­ties and busi­nesses to the rapidly de­vel­op­ing area that sur­rounds their gated com­mu­ni­ties.

“There are thou­sands of res­i­dents who want some­thing dif­fer­ent,” said Con­siglio, chair­woman of the Ea­gle’s Land­ing Ed­u­ca­tional Re­search Com­mit­tee.

“You say that we’re your tax base, but we have noth­ing. When is that go­ing to change? That’s still the ques­tion that’s up in the air.”

Lead­ers of Stock­bridge, which has a pop­u­la­tion of 29,000 and is pre­dom­i­nantly black, filed mul­ti­ple law­suits in an ef­fort to stop the ref­er­en­dum from tak­ing place.

They ar­gued that the cre­ation of a new city — one that would have had a me­dian house­hold in­come of about $128,000, more than dou­ble that of ex­ist­ing Stock­bridge — would dev­as­tate their city and force them to im­pose a new prop­erty tax on re­main­ing res­i­dents.

“I’m re­lieved that the cit­i­zens of Stock­bridge did not want to split the city,” said An­thony Ford, Stock­bridge’s first African Amer­i­can mayor. “Now I have the task of mend­ing the fences and putting this com­mu­nity back to­gether.”

The pro­posal to form a new city sparked heated con­ver­sa­tions in Henry County, a once ru­ral, pre­dom­i­nantly white com­mu­nity 20 miles south­east of At­lanta that has seen an in­flux of mi­nor­ity res­i­dents over the last few decades as its pop­u­la­tion has ex­ploded.

Crit­ics of the pro­posed city ac­cused its lead­ers — who by­passed black Demo­cratic law­mak­ers rep­re­sent­ing the area and worked with white Repub­li­can law­mak­ers else­where to pass leg­is­la­tion ap­prov­ing the ref­er­en­dum — of work­ing to con­sol­i­date the power of wealthy white res­i­dents.

Pro­po­nents of Ea­gle’s Land­ing coun­tered that they were mo­ti­vated by eco­nomic devel­op­ment, not race. Mi­nori­ties would still have formed a ma­jor­ity in the pro­posed city, they

noted, with the ra­cial makeup of the new city about 47% black, 39% white, 8% Asian and 6% Latino.

Con­siglio de­scribes the area out­side her gated coun­try club com­mu­nity as “jinky-janky.” She said she feared Stock­bridge’s lead­ers did not have the vi­sion to lure more high-end re­tail, like a Whole Foods, a Cap­i­tal Grille or a Cheese­cake Fac­tory.

“All I heard was ‘Let’s keep Stock­bridge to­gether,’” she said af­ter the ref­er­en­dum. “OK, you won on that ticket. Now what?

“It’s like, if we didn’t do it yes­ter­day, what makes me think we’re go­ing to do it to­mor­row?” she added. “We don’t even have a ho­tel with room ser­vice. You know, where’s that vi­sion? We’re go­ing to have the same fast­food restau­rants, the same low-end re­tail. Is that your vi­sion, then? Just the same old, same old?”

Ul­ti­mately, Con­siglio said, if lo­cal of­fi­cials did not work to bring more up­mar­ket re­tail and busi­nesses to the area, she would have lit­tle op­tion but to get in her car, hit the in­ter­state and “go take my money to an­other county and let them pros­per.”

Ford said he planned to reach out to those who sup­ported Ea­gle’s Land­ing and or­ga­nize town hall meet­ings on eco­nomic devel­op­ment. With the ref­er­en­dum be­hind them, the mayor said he was con­fi­dent the city could spark devel­op­ment on a new mixed-use project with high­end con­dos and up­scale restau­rants in the south­ern por­tion of the city.

“What we as a city need to do is try to re­solve is­sues and con­flicts,” he said. “We need to do that quickly. We have to

have con­ver­sa­tions to make sure we are do­ing the best we can to sat­isfy our cit­i­zens.”

Within the pro­posed Ea­gle’s Land­ing area, many res­i­dents ex­pressed re­lief.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” said Reg­gie Syl­vain, a res­i­dent of the Ea­gle’s Land­ing Coun­try Club who was op­posed to the cre­ation of Ea­gle’s Land­ing. “Hope­fully, we can just move for­ward from here. We just want to start the heal­ing process.”

Some who cam­paigned against Ea­gle’s Land­ing said they thought a ma­jor­ity of res­i­dents within the area’s gated com­mu­ni­ties had been per­suaded that the plan and the process of push­ing it through the Leg­is­la­ture were un­fair.

“To get down to it, it’s just im­moral,” said Arthur Chris­tian, 49, a fi­nan­cial project man­ager who runs the bal­lot com­mit­tee Cit­i­zens to Keep Stock­bridge To­gether.

“What would have hap­pened to those 18,000 res­i­dents left over in Stock­bridge? It would im­me­di­ately mean a new mu­nic­i­pal tax, which cur­rently we don’t have. But more than that, it could mean per­sonal bank­ruptcy for those on a mea­ger fixed in­come and, ul­ti­mately, it could have re­sulted in the city of Stock­bridge go­ing in­sol­vent.”

Al­though the de­feat of Ea­gle’s Land­ing was a “great first step,” Chris­tian said, the is­sue is not over. Ge­or­gia law, he said, needed to be changed to stop res­i­dents of Ea­gle’s Land­ing — or any other com­mu­nity in Ge­or­gia — from at­tempt­ing to de-an­nex and wres­tle po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic power from ex­ist­ing ci­ties.

jenny.jarvie@la­times.com

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