After election, ‘I was breathing Brookhaven air and it felt good’
Tom Reilly has lived within just a few miles of his Brookhaven home since 1953.
“When I first got here, it was woods,” Reilly said, sitting on the back porch of his home on Remington Drive, surrounded by his tree-shaded yard. “No office buildings and only the occasional house. I had more wild animals than people for neighbors until I was 18.”
He’s 67 now. The longest period of time he ever lived away from the area, he says, was the year he spent overseas with the U.S. Army.
Now his neighborhood is part of Georgia’s newest city, the city of Brookhaven, slated to begin operations on Dec. 17. The day it opens its doors, Brookhaven will be the most populous city in DeKalb County.
On Aug. 1, the day after Reilly and his neighbors voted to create the new city, he celebrated. “I stepped outside the door and suddenly realized I was no longer breathing DeKalb County air. I was breathing Brookhaven air,” Reilly said. “And it felt good.”
When Reilly was a boy, his home was located in a small city called North Atlanta.
The city had been created in 1924 and had a mayor and a five-member city council. But North Atlanta’s residents voted their city out of existence and in 1965, the city closed up shop.
Reilly barely noticed. He now occasionally pulls out a map of the city’s boundaries that he kept because as a boy he’d used it to record locations where he’d seen tracks of animals – deer, raccoon and others – while he roamed the woods around his home. Otherwise, the city of North Atlanta did little to draw the attention of a youngster, he said.
But a campaign to start a new city called Brookhaven in the area did get his attention. Reilly enthusiastically supported the new city, which Brookhaven’s voters approved July 31and which opens for business Dec. 17. He joined a committee created by Brookhaven Yes, a pro-city organization, to study the community’s parks and recommend improvements.
“I think it’s the best thing we can have,” he said. “It gets us away from DeKalb County zoning, from DeKalb County maintenance, from DeKalb police, too,” he said.
The campaign to create the new city started among Reilly’s neighbors in the northern end of the area that would become Brookhaven. After the creation of Dunwoody in 2008, residents in neighborhoods south of I-285 – who were unhappy with some services they were receiving from DeKalb County – began talking about whether they should consider annexation into the nearby cities of Dunwoody or Chamblee or instead start a city of their own.
The campaign to create Brookhaven lasted only about 18 months altogether – a short period compared to the 25 years or more supporters needed to win the right to start neighboring Sandy Springs, the first of the “new cities” created in metro Atlanta since 2005.
The Brookhaven campaign also was more divisive than other campaigns had been. When the final votes were counted, only 55 percent had approved creation of Brookhaven. A majority of the voters in half of Brookhaven’s six precincts voted no. The final vote: 5,939 to 4,928.
Rep. Mike Jacobs, a Republican lawmaker who lives in Brookhaven and championed legislation to create the new city, isn’t surprised there was opposition. Brookhaven, he said, is different from other areas that have incorporated in recent years.
“This is the first new city that has formed entirely inside the Perimeter [I-285],” Jacobs said. “The community is more diverse and has different sensibilities than a Johns Creek or a Sandy Springs or even a Dunwoody.”
And Brookhaven may be the last new city in DeKalb County for a while, Jacobs predicted. The campaign to start Brookhaven proved just too divisive and too difficult for some to want to repeat it elsewhere. “I think it is unlikely we will see another new city in DeKalb County,” Jacobs said.
“The incorporation of a new city really requires three ingredients – a motivated group of citizens willing to work with the Carl Vinson Institute to perform a study and raise the revenues needed to fund the study, a legislative champion in the General Assembly who has the wherewithal to see the charter through the process, and a willing electorate when the referendum comes to a vote, and I’m not sure that those three ingredients – and you need all three of them – will exist anywhere else in DeKalb County.”
Jim Eyre moved to his home in Ashford Park in 2001. He had been living in Dunwoody and decided he wanted to live closer to Atlanta. He bought a house with plans to renovate it and sell it in a few years.
But he grew to love his new community. He could hear airplanes taking off from DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, trains running to the MARTA station, the buzz of nearby traffic. He ended up sticking around.
“I just felt comfortable there,” he said. “It’s that whole sort of in-town feel. I like listening to planes and trains. There’s something sort of comfortable about that.”
Eyre grew interested in local political issues when the DeKalb County school system redrew attendance lines for Ashford Park Elementary School. Soon, he was actively involved in community zoning and development issues.
He got into a routine of checking public hearing notices, and added his name to the email lists of his county commissioners. Over the years, he became a fixture in Decatur, driving down to speak to the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals and Board of Commissioners about zoning applications.
“It’s a scary thing when the boards know you by name,” Eyre said.
When talk started in early 2011 about forming a new city that would include Ashford Park and be known as Brookhaven, Eyre and many of his neighbors at first didn’t realize what was happening. “Quite frankly,” he said, “it caught us off guard.”
But, as the cityhood movement, as it came to be known, picked up steam, Eyre became deeply involved.
He studied reports, attended public meetings, wrote letters to the editor of the local paper. He came out against the city, arguing it could face financial troubles despite a report from the Carl Vinson Institute of the University of Georgia that Brookhaven would produce enough tax revenue to be a viable city. He also worried about police protection and how short the period between the vote and the start of the city would be.
Once the city won voter approval, however, Eyre decided it was important to make sure it got off to a good start. Running for office seemed like a natural way to take his local service to the next level, he said.
He ran for Brookhaven City Council and won the seat representing District 2. He was the only candidate to win a council seat without a runoff.
“The voters have spoken. We have a city. I’ve put aside the ‘yes’ and the ‘no.’ Now it’s time to see how we can make this work,” Eyre said.
In August, just after voters approved a referendum to create a city, Maria Duarte and her boyfriend, Francisco, bought a condo in the northern end of Brookhaven. They didn’t know that they were about to move into a brand new city. “We didn’t become aware until maybe two months before we moved in,” Duarte said.
But as it worked out, Duarte thinks Brookhaven will be a great spot for her. She works for the Spanish language television channel Azteca Atlanta as an on-air personality and a community spokesperson. She hopes she can help Brookhaven City Council connect with the Hispanic community that makes up 30 percent of the new city’s population.
“I would consider myself to be very well-connected with the Hispanic community in Atlanta and I hope to help and be a liaison,” Duarte said. “I can’t wait to get involved.”
Duarte said the Hispanic community can often be overlooked by politicians because of the language barrier and the perception that they don’t vote. “I hope to see a government that is inclusive of all members of the community, regardless of income, regardless of nationality,” Duarte said.
Lisa Alexander thinks the new city may help bring attention to her community, too. She lives in the Byrnwyck neighborhood in the northern end of the new city and thinks being part of Brookhaven will make it easier for outsiders to locate her neighborhood.
“We’re kind of in no man’s land,” she said “We’re not Sandy Springs. We’re not Dunwoody. We’re not what most people would consider Brookhaven.”
Alexander remembers some of her neighbors talking hopefully about being included in the boundaries for Dunwoody or Sandy Springs when those cities were going through their incorporation efforts. Now that her neighborhood is part of Brookhaven, she’s hopeful for the future of the new city.
“Any time you add another layer of government there’s a concern. There’s concern that this will eventually raise our taxes,” Alexander said. “But hopefully because we have a group of people that’s really dedicated to helping Brookhaven achieve the goals they had for incorporation, I guess I’m trying to be an optimist.”
Jacobs thinks her optimism is justified.
“I think the citizens are going to enjoy having control over their own community,” Jacobs said. “I think citizens are going to enjoy having their local government decision makers live in their neighborhoods. And I think citizens are going to enjoy not having to drive to downtown Decatur to influence their local government and to keep an eye on it.”
In Byrnwyck, Alexander wonders whether things will be different now that she lives in a city.
“I’m curious to see if and how it will affect my life on a daily basis. A lot of people have put a lot of time and energy into this effort,” she said. “Hopefully, we can all join together and work together to have it be a great community.”